Collecting a Standard Deck of Playing Cards

A standard deck of playing cards is used all over the world today and has been for several centuries. Collecting playing cards is becoming increasingly popular as playing card decks are so diverse and a collection can be started relatively inexpensively.

Early playing card history
The early history of playing cards is rather murky, as experts tend to look for historical references when there are no remaining artifacts today. The history of playing cards probably stretches back to the invention of paper in ancient China. The first surviving reference to verified playing cards dates to the 14th century T'o-t'o, a history of the Liao Dynasty, which talked about Chinese Emperor Mu-tsung playing cards on New Year's Eve in 969.

Many experts think that the history of playing cards began in Europe in the late 14th century when playing cards came in from Egypt. By 1377 an ordinance prohibited card playing on weekdays in Paris. Card decks already included 52 cards with four suits, although the suits were different then than they are today.

Early playing cards were quite expensive, as they had to be individually hand-painted. Eventually, woodcuts were used to speed up the process in the early 15th century. Woodcut playing cards were either colored by hand or by using stencils. By the end of the 15th century, the four suits still in use today, hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs, had been introduced, most likely in France.

Collecting playing cards
There are a number of ways that playing-card collectors categorize cards, including by size, by time period, by maker or by country of origin. Other collectors look for special card faces or card distributors such as railroads or airlines. Some collectors focus solely on jokers.

Dating playing cards
One way of dating playing cards is by their tax stamps. Tax stamps are adhered to the packaging or imprinted on the cards themselves. When using tax stamps as a clue, keep in mind that the cards in question may have been manufactured much earlier than the tax-stamp date and that the stamps were place on the packages where the card decks were being sold, not where the cards were manufactured. In addition, tax stamps were sometimes used until the stamps had run out, so card decks can actually have been made later than the tax stamp indicates. Stamps were even sold to other card manufacturers.

Other clues include:

What printing process was used on your playing cards? The majority of playing cards were printed using wood blocks until about the 1870s.

Are the corners of your cards rounded? Rounded corners were not used on playing cards until around 1875.

Are the backs of your cards plain or decorated? While other countries had patterned backs on playing cards previous to this, cards made in England and the United States did not have decorated backs until the 1850s.

What are the designs on your playing cards? Keeping in mind that the same designs were sometimes discontinued and then reintroduced at a later date, the designs on your playing cards can give you a clue as to when they were made.

Who manufactured your playing cards? Usually, card decks are marked with a manufacturer's name or trademark. Companies move to different addresses or change their names, and trademarks tend to change over time. Some companies simply cease to exist. Researching the trademarks on your playing cards may give you a manufacturing-date window.

Do your playing cards include two jokers? Two jokers were not included in card decks until around the 1870s.

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