The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

The history of playing cards

Care to read up on the history of playing cards? We recommend William Chatto's Facts and speculations on the origin and history of playing cards (London, 1848). You can access it via the Internet Archive by clicking this link.

Chatto was properly fascinated - possibly even obsessed - by playing cards. Why? 

Cards, considered with respect to what they simply are - the instruments of a popular game, and the productions of art - suggest several questions, the investigation of which is not without interest: Where and when were they invented, and what is the origin of their names? When were they introduced into Europe? What has been their progress as a popular game; and what influence have they had on society? What changes have they undergone with respect to the figures and the marks of the suits; and to what purposes have picture and fancy cards been made subservient, in consequence of those in common use being so generally understood? 

From Chatto you can learn about the incredibly wide variety of deck designs: Flowers, Pomegranates, Leaves, and Roses; or Books, Printers' inking balls, Wine-cups, and Goblets. You can read all about the morality of card playing.

And you can learn the local histories of certain cards. You will discover that the Six of Hearts, for example, was known in Ireland as "Grace's card." A gentleman named Grace, you see, was lobbied by supporters of William III of England and promised royal favor should he ally himself with the king. Grace wrote his answer on the back of a Six of Hearts

Tell your master I despise his offer; and that honour and conscience are dearer to a gentleman than all the wealth and titles a prince can bestow.

Facts and speculations is full of such gems. The history of playing cards is as colorful as their designs. 

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