Playing cards are what I consider to be parallel universe objects. What I mean to say is; they are very commonly owned objects, but virtually no one who owns them has any idea where they came from, or a clue about the significance of their designs. It’s almost like playing cards are a small, incredibly dense package of history and interesting stories, but go completely unrecognised by those who own them. Imagine having a dinosaur fossil in your house, but using it as an ashtray.
Yes, everyone knows what a heart and a diamond are, and that jack, queen, king and ace go at the end of the numerical sequence, but beyond that few take the time to understand how playing card designs came into existence. But hey, if you’re feeling guilty about it now, put your mind at ease. I’ll do the leg work for you, and give a condensed version of some of the more interesting facts about playing card designs.
I’d heard before that there was some sort of significance with the king designs in playing cards, but had never actually got around to Googling it. It turns out, however, that it isn’t just the king cards, but all the picture cards. Every picture card in a deck of cards is based after a real historical figure; mostly French, and specifically designed to look like that person. The king of hearts is Charlemagne, the king of diamonds Julius Caesar, notorious for being repetitively thwarted by Asterix and Obelix, the king of clubs is Alexander the Great, and so on. Joan of Arc is in there, plus a bunch more people I’ve never heard of.
But the point is I had not even the faintest idea that the picture card designs had such significance. Its true that there are versions of playing cards now that ignore these established designs, but the cards I own still show all of the historical figure designs. I shall never see the king of diamonds now as anyone other than the guy with the large nose in Asterix comics.
The Ace Of Spades
So why does the ace of spades have a different design to all the other playing cards? Because it’s the ace of spades, and it’s significant in so many card games, right? No, not at all. Although, it has become a modern tradition for the ace of spades to be given all sorts of amazing designs, which I personally love.
The original reason the card appeared different was because tax in France was applied only to a single playing card; the ace of spades. Room was left on the card design to allow a stamp to be applied, which indicated you had paid your card tax. The stamp was generally placed in the black spade, or designed to be placed around the spade symbol, complimenting the card design. Many artists today incorporate this into their designs, and I have a feeling they don’t even realise the original reason for it.
Some people, though, refused to pay tax on a playing card, and so rather just left the ace of spades out, and played anyway. And that brings us to another interesting fact…
Playing With a Full Deck
It was, therefore, common that some people would play cards with a deck of 51. And this meant, of course, that many of the games they were playing were fundamentally broken. Solitaire is impossible to finish without an ace of spades. This gave rise to that phrase; “Not playing with a full deck.”
Isn’t it amazing how all these little bits of history fit together so snugly? Now days the phrase is used to describe anyone a little bonkers, regardless if they sit all day playing an un-winnable game of solitaire. For me, this suddenly made the lyrics of the song Flowers on the Wall a whole lot deeper, and a whole lot more depressing. It’s the song in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis is about to crash his car, and deal with the basement rapists.
War Time Tactics
Saving the best for last, playing cards have been used for advanced warfare on more than one occasion. In World War II soldiers in German concentration camps were sent special playing cards. The ace of spades in these decks would peel apart, revealing pieces of a map that would guide them to allies.
In Vietnam decks of cards were made that consisted only of the ace of spades. This was because, when used in fortune telling, the ace of spades meant death. The decks were left for the Vietnamese to find, who were very superstitious. Sneaky? You better believe it, and also the single most interesting fact I learned about playing cards while researching this blog. Too bad it doesn’t seem like the tactic worked, however, or those horrifying movies about Vietnam might have been a whole lot less depressing.