History of Playing Cards: Names, Games, History, Design and More

blog pic history of playing cards
February 26, 2021

Playing cards are familiar day-to-day objects of many purposes such as fun, education, and relaxation for the mind. The ancient event will go down as one of the most historic originators of table games. 

And interestingly, playing cards are now seen around every nook and cranny of Europe, where Bridge and Poker are played in today’s world.

Although the use of playing cards goes as far back as the 1300s in Europe with unique designs and fundamentals, playing cards are, however, not only peculiar to Europe.

Some other regions have their playing cards unique in designs, mixtures, and fundamental changes depending on the area. Putting everything in a proper perspective, the design of playing cards has not really been altered from what it used to be since Medieval times. However, they are now more popular with their presence in almost every country and every corner of the world.

Variety is said to be the spice of life, and the same goes for playing cards. And as we proceed with this extensive history of playing cards, you will come to know the different varieties of playing cards in existence and have been in existence for over 600 years.

What are playing cards? 

Playing cards are sets of cards classified by numbers, illustrations, or both. These cards have various uses, some of which include; playing games, divination, conjuring, and educational purposes. 

Playing cards are at the center of almost every card game. Hence one could get curious about how it came to be. And questions like these often come to mind:

  1. Where did playing cards come from? 
  2. What are the names of cards? 
  3. How many cards in a deck? 

This article promises to address all the questions you might have about the history of playing cards, understanding how the traditional western playing cards have evolved through several stages.

Among other things you will discover in this article includes topics such as:

  • Origin of Playing cards
  • Various card names and games
  • List of card games
  • History of card games
  • The number of cards in a deck
  • Various Card in a deck
  • Playing cards symbols
  • Card suits meaning
  • Playing Design
  • The evolution of playing cards 

The Origin of Playing Cards

While playing cards, frequently, one could wonder, “Where did playing cards come from.”  The history of card games can be better understood once the history of playing cards is established. The origin of playing cards dates back to the 14th century. Playing cards were said to have made their first appearance in Europe, probably in Italy or Spain around the 1370s.

italian or spanish cards

The early playing cards were said to be a possession of the Islamic mamluk dynasty from Egypt. The first cards were Luxury goods that could only be bought by the rich as they were hand-crafted. The early playing cards were also spotted around the European trade routes in the 15th century. At the time, it was an excellent pastime for the upper classes.

german cards

The Woodblock printing technology invented in the early 15th century in Germany reduced the production cost of playing cards. Later in the 11480s, production costs were further reduced as the cards were painted through stencils; this resulted in the simplification of the suit marks originally French but has now become international. The initial suit names being: Pique, court, carreau, trefle, known in English as Spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs.

french cards

As the cost of playing cards was reduced, card games became more popular and gradually took over from the traditional indoor games. Playing cards contributed significantly to the development of other multiplayer games.

As a result of the intellectual skills, involved people began to gamble on the outcome of the game. The connection of card games with gambling made some countries place a ban on playing card games.

On the other hand, some countries considered the commercial implications of the game’s popularity and monopolized the manufacture of card games, those who forged the cards were arrested and imprisoned. Other countries impose taxes on playing card manufacturers.

The elaborate design of the ace of spades in British decks of cards depicts the 18th-century convention of applying the tax authorization stamp to this particular card.

Despite advances in printing and manufacture and the never-diminishing popularity of games, playing-card manufacture remains a highly specialized and competitive market. In the 20th century, many traditional suppliers went out of business or were absorbed into larger companies.

Playing Design 

The traditional playing cards were made by pasting several layers of thin rectangular cardboard to form a flat and semi-rigid material. All cards are made to be of uniform shape and size. Then the cards bear identifying Marks on one side, which is the face of the card; this is so that each card can be told apart from the others. At the same time, the other side of the cards is either left bare or bears a common pattern with the rest of the cards. In the 20th century, plastic coating was added to the cards to prevent wear.

How many cards in a deck?

The number of cards in a deck of playing cards is usually 52. The 52 cards are divided into four suits containing 13 ranks each; this way, each card has a unique suit and rank.

Most card games are based on the fact that players can only identify the cards they are holding and are ignorant of their opponents.  Other non-card games based on this concept include dominos and mahjong. 


There are four suits in a deck of cards; two black and two red suits – the card names are spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. Some people claim that Spanish card suits had been in use in England before the French card suits were introduced around 1490. For instance, the word Spade was used in place of the Spanish “Spado,” i.e., “Sword,” Clubs cards, on the other hand, is a direct translation of “basto.”


Ranks are represented by numbers on spot cards from 1 to 10 and continued by the three court cards – Jack, queen, and king equivalent to 11, 12, and 13 respectively and represented by the letters J, Q, and K.

In most Western card games, the numeral 1 is designated ace and marked A accordingly. Games based on one rank’s superiority over another, such as most trick-taking games, the ace counts highest, outranking even the king. In games based on numerical value, the ace counts typically 1, as in cribbage, or 11, as an option in blackjack. And games based on arranging cards into ordered series, such as rummy, it may count either high or low or even both (as in a “round-the-corner” sequence such as Q-K-A-2-3).

regular playing cards

Playing Cards 

A standard deck of playing cards contains 52 cards, all ranked numerically, starting with Ace, which represents 1to 10, and the jack, the queen, and the king representing 11, 12, 13. Most trick-taking games are based on the superiority of ranks. In such games, the ace counts as the highest-ranked card, outranking even the king. In games that prioritize numerical values such as cribbage, the ace usually serves as 1, while it could also serve as 11 in blackjack.

Games like rummy require the cards to be arranged into an ascending or descending series. The ace could either rank as the highest, lowest, or both. Just as it is in a “round-the-corner sequence” – Q – K – A – 2 – 3.


There are usually 2 or more extra cards in a standard deck, each of which depicts a traditional court jester – these cards are called jokers. Most of the time, people don’t use them during gameplay; however, the function of jokers in the games that do vary according to the rules of the game.

For instance, in some rummy games like canasta, the cards are called “wild.” They can be used to represent any card of choice.

It was said that the joker (not its name originally) was introduced to serve as the highest trump in the game of Euchre. In reality, it isn’t more than a glorified jack. 

joker card

The Evolution of National Decks

The international deck, which is the standard 52-card deck for playing cards, evolved from the 52-card mamluk deck. Some of the original playing suits from the mamluk deck still exist in the international deck today. The playing suits in the mamluk deck include swords, polo sticks, goblets, and coins. Each of these suits contains cards numbered 1-10 and have the king, 

The traditional court cards were the king, upper viceroy, and lower victory. However, in the 15th century, as playing cards became even more popular across Europe, card makers in the various areas made several adaptations. At the end of the day, there were several suits of national decks used in the different banks.

evolution of siutmarks

National decks

The international deck evolved in Europe from the original 52-card Mamlūk deck, of which some specimens are still extant. The original suits were swords, polo sticks, goblets, and coins, each containing ranks 1 to 10 and three court cards. The courts (and it will now be more meaningful to list them from the top down) were king, upper viceroy, and lower viceroy. 

As cards spread through Europe in the 15th century, the card makers of each area adapted these to their own designs, eventually giving rise to several series of national decks that are still used in their countries of origin.

Suitmarks were first used on the Italian and Spanish playing cards deck. With time the Greek and swiss decks began to employ nature-oriented suits. The next stop was France, where cardmakers began to adopt the simple stencil designs, which eventually reduced the cost of production, and the cards gained some popularity in the 21st century.   

Down in England, the French designs were partly modified to give rise to the current standard suit marks, which are widely in use except by countries that have a unique national suit mark.

The various national suit marks have their unique numbering system and designated court cards. In some systems, the numerals are complete; some other systems do not use all 52 cards. Most French games are played with 32 cards, while Spanish and Italian games range between 40 and 48. Occasionally some games use all 52 cards.

Most Spanish and Italian games omit the 10s, while swiss cards replace 10s with ‘banners’ – cards that either display a pendant or a flag.

In Spanish and Italian games, an ace is equivalent to 1, an ace; however, in swiss games is equivalent to 2, aces in swiss games bear two suit marks as well.

Initially, all court cards used to be of masculine gender, for instance, Cavallo in Spanish and the traditional Italian Cavallo mean horse. The ober and unter in German card games literally mean over and under are also interpreted to mean a superior and inferior officer, respectively depicting the rank of the suit mark on the card.

Latin suit marks and courts are military-inclined, Germanic suit marks and courts exude a rustic flavor, and Anglo-French ones exude a courtly flavor.

The oldest court cards were all male. Among court cards, Cavallo and Cavallo mean horse, in Spanish and Italian, respectively. 

However, as these cards refer to the riders, they are better-termed cavaliers. In decks of Germanic origin, ober (over) and unter (under) are taken to mean, respectively, a superior and inferior officer. However, they originally referred to the position of the suit mark on the card. 

It has been often pointed out that Latin suit marks and courts bear a military flavor, Germanic ones a rustic flavor, and Anglo-French ones a courtly flavor. 

The English national deck is equivalent to the French national deck and traditionally the international deck also. Contrary to what most people believe, it is actually the Germans and not the French who first replaced the upper viceroy with the queen.

The Tarot deck was introduced in the 15th century. This deck includes additional courts and a suit of trumps (trionfi). It is known that the Tarot deck is often used for fortune-telling. However, it was initially used to play tarot games.

history of playing cards

List of Card Games

The introduction of playing cards has made it possible to have such a vast array of card games; thus, the history of cards is rooted in playing cards history. As a matter of fact, card names and card symbols are usually the same for most card games. Here is a compiled list of card games (some popular games)

  1. All fours
  2. Baccarat
  3. Barton
  4. Canasta
  5. Casino war
  6. Cribbage
  7. Cuarenta
  8. Double solitaire
  9. Euchre
  10. Freecell Solitaire
  11. Fool’s paradise
  12. Go-fish
  13. Hearts
  14. Jabberwocky
  15. Klondike
  16. Ombre
  17. Policeman
  18. Pyramid Solitaire 
  19. Rummy
  20. Spider Solitaire 
  21. Tarot
  22. Teen Patti
  23. Truco
  24. Uno
  25. Uno
  26. War
  27. Yu-gi-oh!
  28. TriPeaks Solitaire

Special design elements 

There are many other design features. We will mention three:


Card backs used to be designed plain with the intention that it will acquire either accidental or deliberate identity Mark’s. As time advanced, card makers decided to print fine dots or distinguish patterns on the hg card backs. In the 19th century, advancements in color and printing technology had made it possible to have a vast array of attractive designs.

Double-header cards

Initially, the royal figures on court cards were displayed fully, hence the famous phrase used in cribbage “one for his nob (i.e., head) and “two for his heels.” 

The full image on the cards posed a significant disadvantage during gameplay; players who were patient and observant enough could identify court cards in their opponent’s hands when they are turned “right way up.” In the 19th century, double-header courts were introduced to tackle the initial challenge; gradually, the practice spread to other regions.


Indexing was one of the 19th-century innovations to playing cards; the rank and suit of each card were indexed in the top corners. Indexing the ranks and suits makes it easier for the players to identify their cards without needing to spread their cards so wide to avoid their opponents taking sneak-peaks.

The first set of index cards were called squeezes because they could be squeezed into a tight fan. The indexing system also posed a slight disadvantage as cards whose suit/ranks start with similar letters could easily get mixed up. For example, it was quite tricky differentiating the “K” for knave from the “K” for the king; this is one of the reasons why knave was replaced with Jack.


Playing cards are familiar day-to-day objects that serve so many purposes ranging from playing games, educational purposes, divination, and conjuring. Playing cards have been around for some time with increased popularity in several countries across the globe.

The story of playing cards has a rich history. It will go down as one of the most primitive originators of table games that are being enjoyed at every nook and cranny of the world, especially in Europe, where Bridge and Poker are played.

Since the history of card games is deeply rooted in the history of playing cards and now that you have a deep understanding of card symbols and the origin of playing cards, you should try out some names of cards mentioned in this article.

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