If you play cards, chances are good you use a deck with its roots in Cincinnati. One of the largest playing card companies is the United States Playing Card Company, based in Erlanger, Ky., but until recently headquartered in Cincinnati. USPCC products, however, are mere youngsters in the history of cards.
Playing cards, says “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” have been a principal implement in gaming, conjuring and divination for at least 650 years in Europe and for many centuries more in oriental countries. Cards are also used in education, by outright means such as flash cards, and more subtly, as when children learn numbers, strategy, logical thinking and organization while playing card games. A visit to a card display at a local store demonstrates the wealth of choices available in standard playing cards and in specialty cards including those directed at children.
The origin of cards is lost in history, says EB, with much controversy existing over their beginnings. Theories about their introduction to Europe suggest that Crusaders carried them home, the Saracens introduced them into Spain or Italy, or gypsies or Tartars brought them to eastern Europe, making them possibly extant in Europe since the 13th century. The French 52-card, four-suit deck, the suits called pique (spade), coeur (heart), carreau (diamond) and trefle (club), was adopted by the English and thus by Americans. The German deck consists of 32 cards, and the spread of national games such as whist, which Phileas Fogg plays avidly in “Around the World in 80 Days,” bridge and piquet led to both size decks being used throughout the world.
“The earliest European cards were elaborately hand-painted, and too costly for general use, but early in the 15th century wood engraving found its principal expression in the printing of playing cards, which thereupon spread to the common people with rapidity,” says EB. “The wood-engraved cards were often coloured by means of stencils and dyes, a process of manufacture which remained in common use for more than 350 years thereafter.” Modern cards measure 3.5 inches by 2.5 inches or 3.5 inches by 2.25 inches, with rounded corners. EB says playing card design has evolved slowly because “gamblers’ superstitious fear of change delayed improvements.” Double-head cards, which can be read from either side, did not become standard until after 1870.
The despised Tax Stamp of 1765 that helped lead to our Revolution applied to playing cards, and EB says the stamp was printed on the ace of spades, starting the tradition of the ornate design on that card. Bicycle, part of the United States Playing Card Company, prints its brand information and printing date code on that card.
The USPCC website, bicyclecards.com, says that A. O. Russell, Robert J. Morgan, James M. Armstrong and John F. Robinson Jr. formed Russell, Morgan & Co. in January 1867 and printed theatrical and circus posters, placards and labels. In 1880 the company decided to make playing cards and in 1891 changed its name to The United States Printing Company. By 1894 the playing card business had grown to such proportions that it was separated from the printing company, becoming The United States Playing Card Company.
USPCC acquired The Standard Playing Card Co. of Chicago, Perfection Card Co. of New York, and New York Consolidated Cards. NYCC had antecedents dating to 1833 when Lewis I. Cohen perfected his four-color press for printing playing cards. The Bee playing cards still issued by USPCC originated at New York Consolidated in 1892. In 2004 USPC became a subsidiary of Jarden Corporation and in 2010 Bicycle Playing Cards celebrated its 125th anniversary.
The joker, says USPCC, is an American invention dating from about 1865 and has made different appearances in the Bicycle card line. The first joker depicted a man on a high-wheeled bike. The bicycle later acquired two wheels of normal size, followed by a series of playing card kings on bikes. The 1885 bicycle joker and the 2010 king joker are included in the Bicycle 125th-anniversary deck. The USPCC ace of spades carries a code identifying the year in which the deck was printed.
I love this story from the USPCC site: “During World War II, the company secretly worked with the U.S. government in fabricating special decks to send as gifts for American prisoners of war in German camps. When these cards were moistened, they peeled apart to reveal sections of a map indicating precise escape routes. Also during the war, USPCC provided spotter cards that illustrated the characteristic shapes of tanks, ships and aircraft from the more powerful countries.” Those certainly qualify as educational uses of playing cards.
The U.S. Playing Card website is bicyclecards.com