Bicycle playing cards

playing cards history

Playing cards from Hungary – credit: Takkk

Recently I pulled off the nearly impossible – I achieved an ideal mix of productivity and relaxation during a weekend. Some craft projects, a haircut, minimal house cleaning – all these random events converged to make for a lovely Saturday and Sunday. But I must mention a big part of this successful mix was playing some Solitaire. It was Friday night and in the midst of watching some Netflix, Reese’s Pieces nearly in hand, I suddenly had an inkling to play cards. The only problem was that in the vast expanse of my board game closet I did not have a single deck of complete, standard playing cards. After I got over the shock, I bustled over to Target to grab my fateful deck of Bicycle playing cards. After I completed a few rounds I got to thinking about the history of this brand and playing cards themselves. Join me on a fun stroll through time and parlors across the world…

We’re all looking for the latest in stress relief & self-care: next time pick up a deck of cards!

A brief history of playing cards

The first mention of playing cards (used in what was known as the leaf game), was in China, circa 868. Next time you are at a museum and see the Tang Dynasty mentioned, impress your friends with the factoid that this group of folks are our card-playing forefathers and mothers! Playing cards made their way to Europe in the 1300s and apparently caused quite the scandal as the Swiss sought to ban them in 1367. A few decades later, progress continued with the development of the suits we know today (although they had many more suit designs than we have in our modern decks). The Parisians, not too surprisingly, were the premier designers. The French are always renowned for their aesthetic sensibilities and we still see their influence in today’s designs. But surprisingly, their politics made just as much (if not more) of an impact. Prior to the French Revolution games were played with the King as high, but the Ace took that top spot after the infamous ousting of royal presence.

The manufacturing of cards came across the ocean and to America in the late 1800s, with the first Bicycle brand cards hitting the market in 1885. The New York Consolidated Card Company was one of the early, top manufacturers. What makes this company so interesting is its founder – Lewis Cohen. Like many of our other, favorite vintage inventors, he was a true entrepreneur. He was the first to make lead pencils and is rumored to have been the first in the developing steel pen market. In 1835 he went beyond pencils and specialty cards to invent a machine that allowed for a quality of mass-production unseen during that time. His revolutionary system allowed for four colors to print on one sheet, in one impression. For many years Cohen’s company held the market on quality cards, but in time the patent expired and the manufacturing landscape adjusted accordingly. Collectors take note that the NY Consolidated Card Co was best known for the Bee #92 deck, still preferred by casinos today.

playing cards history

Vintage playing cards – credit: BY-SA

Time continued to move along, bringing with it new trends and fads, yet cards continued to play an important role in culture and society. With the beginning of WWII, cards took that role very seriously. Cards became a key part of mission-critical communications, developed with secret maps – others were made with military-centric designs to help identify enemy ships and aircraft. There is a sample of the hidden maps deck displayed in the International Spy Museum in DC. (Activated by water – the cards in this deck would open up and the insides would unfold to create a small map.) The relevance of cards weren’t limited to just one conflict. Troops in Vietnam made the special request for decks filled with Ace of Spade cards as the Viet Cong were rumored to be fearful of the symbol. From parlors to the frontline, cards had secured their place in the hearts and minds of global society. Tell us in the comments – what card games do you like to play?

Looking for a new game? Check out some favorite vintage card games here!

More about Bicycle playing cards

Those iconic bicycle-clad cards began life as a twinkle in the eye of The Cincinnati Enquirer, a firm known mainly for their posters and placards. In the late 1880s, with some expansion and success under their belts, the founding executives decided to break into the playing card business (to give the crusty East Coast establishment a run for their money!). The first deck was completed in 1881 and with a crew of about 20 folks, they were soon making over 1,500 decks per day. In 1894, after a name change, the company acquired several other firms and re-launched as The United States Playing Card Company. Fun fact: the Bicycle brand has been in continuous production since 1885. Talk about living history!

Iconic figures in playing card history

When I’m not playing solitaire I’ve been enjoying a series called Abstract: The Art of Design and I can’t help but think Andrew Dougherty would fit right into these documentaries. His story is an underdog, rag to riches type of a tale. Son of Irish immigrants, he bounced around from odd job to odd job – saving some money along the way. By the young age of 21 he had tucked away approximately $20,000 (in today’s money) and started a playing card company. Over the decades he formed partnerships, broke partnerships and went on to employ 130 people and have a serious impact in the burgeoning marketplace. Dougherty patented a couple finishes – linoid (which made cards less sticky) and Pegulose (a water-resistant coating still used today). A true Renaissance man, he wasn’t just a scientist – he was also an artist. Check out some of his beautifully detailed designs here.

Ready to start collecting cards or looking to add some new jewels to your existing treasures? Check out this list of good places to find vintage cards!

Bicycle playing cards

Credit – Ktyzoo

As we’ve been breezing through this history of playing cards you must be asking yourself if the “good ol days” were a boys club. You may be envisioning overstuffed leather furniture with the aroma of cigar smoke gently swooping up and down, between barrel-chested men enjoying a brandy. Well, think again dear reader, there are some revolutionary women in this history and we’ll chat about one in particular today: “Poker” Alice Ivers. An Englishwoman, she came to America with her family in the late 1800s. By 1880 she had made it as far West as Colorado, her she found her husband and discovered her love of poker.

Following her husband’s tragic death, she supported herself and her family through her just her poker winnings. She remarried twice more and although her husbands came and went, her adoration of the game remained strong. Later she would build her empire by creating places where folks could come to get a good game in (a pre-cursor to our modern casinos and yep… they weren’t entirely legal at the time!). She passed away in 1930, leaving quite the mark on the game of poker and jazz age society. (One man made the mistake of trying to steal from her and she shot him in self-defense, becoming a bit of a legend in her own right!) My quiet nights at home playing Solitare are very tame in comparison, but I’ll think of “Poker” Alice and the other delightfully complex women who contributed to the history of playing cards next time I feel that deck shuffle in my hands. Tell me dear reader, what will you think on next time you crack open a fresh deck? Let us know in the comments…

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