Antique playing cards

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Card playing was brought to Europe from the Islamic Mameluke Empire. Playing cards were decorated with intricate designs reminiscent of Muslim carpets and Persian rugs. Playing cards from the world over demonstrate cultural and social history. Indian cards are made on lacquered paper and Japanese cards feature theatrical scenes printed on silk. Chinese playing cards that accompany mah jongg sets and didactic sets are only the tip of the playing card iceberg. Italian playing cards or tarot cards have a close association with fortune telling or cartomancy dating to the late 14th Century.

Playing Card Decks

A standardized version of most decks emerged in the late 15th Century. As playing cards were found in southern Europe, particularly in Italy and Spain, the card makers had suits. For instance, the traditional suits of spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds first appeared in France about 1475. Playing card designs demonstrate specific countries. Diamonds and clubs were known to France and bells and acorns were found in Germany. Makers added images of royal soldiers and ranking monarchs to the existing deck. For instance, the Queen found in contemporary playing card decks was introduced by the French in the 1500s. After that time, a deck of cards including the Queen became known as the “French Pack”. It is generally believed that playing cards as we know them reached England by circa 1520. The “French Pack” became the traditional 52 card format for playing cards that are common today.

The ace of spade mimics the stamp that was used to indicate that the tax on playing cards had been paid to the British monarchs of the 1400s and 1500s. Face cards were based on the likeness of historical kings, queens, and knights (knaves or jacks) including Alexander the Great (clubs), Charlemagne (hearts), David (spades), Caesar (diamonds), Judith (hearts), Rachel (diamonds) among others. The number of cards in the deck, 52, references the weeks of the year and the four suits recall the four seasons.

Special interest cards include advertising, airlines, bicycles, Native Americans, World Fairs and Expos, gambling, geography, magic, novelty, pinups, railroad, consumer products like Coca Cola, Planters Peanuts, or Budweiser, souvenir, stamps, steamship, tarot, tobacco, and specialty backs. For instance, the popular Bicycle playing cards were sold in boxes with a gilt edge starting in circa 1885. Bicycle has used a logo image of the female figure of Columbia since the 1880s which is also highly recognizable. Bicycle packs in excellent condition can bring high values from collectors ranging from $15 to $1,500 depending on age, condition, rarity.

What to Look For 

Playing cards

The suit system (diamonds, clubs, hearts, spades) of your playing card deck will help you identify the original location and date your deck of cards. Certain suits were not used in certain countries. Starting in the 1870s, American playing cards show their numerical values at the corners of each card. This is not the case with most European cards until the 1890s.

Look at the edges of your deck of playing cards. It is a little known fact that playing cards only had rounded edges after 1875.

Most makers or manufacturers of playing cards marked their decks. Look for a trademark, logo, or location marking on the deck or box.

Playing cards are widely popular on the collectibles market. Some contemporary specialty decks command as much as $250 while antique decks can be valued into the thousands of dollars.

Keep your playing cards in good condition, free of moisture or surface dirt and keep the full deck intact. The less you handle your vintage playing cards, then the greater chance you have of maintaining its good condition and related value.

Get an online appraisal of your antique or vintage playing cards from Dr. Lori.