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Not All Decks Were Worn Out With Use


The face cards in early playing cards used full-length figures. The suit identification was only shown in one corner.

The Collector’s Guide To Playing Cards, by Mark Pickvet, is among the new releases by Schiffer Publishing.

This is a category in which the collector has thousands of opportunities, because there are tens of thousands of playing cards available from which to choose. They have the advantage of being small, so storage isn’t a major problem, and they can range in price from a dime to hundreds of dollars, The author warns about going overboard, collecting decks of cards because they are cheap. Among those that have little value are those with localized advertising.

Playing cards have been in use for hundreds of years. An extensive history is included in the book. In the earliest cards, the king was the highest ranking. What could outrank a card carrying the likes of Charlemagne or Caesar?

Prior to the 1870s, there were no jokers, no corner indices, and face cards were full-length bodies, with legs and feet. (They were not double-sided.)

One of the most simple inventions in the history of playing cards was the American invention of providing corner indices in the 1870s. Some American manufacturers used miniature card in the corners; these were called triplicates. Another company used numbers and called them “Squeezers.” This is the method that won out as the industry standard. The squeezers made it possible to hold all the cards, bunched together, in one hand.

The joker was also an American invention in the 1870s. And to complete the list of American changes at this time, the reversible face cards came into use - that is, the same figure was displayed at each end of the card, so however it is picked up, the value is shown.

Early cards were made of a coarse paper, unpolished. Most plastic coated cards did not make their appearance until after World War I. Some more expensive cards of the early 20th century were made of linen, and one may find some cards made of leather or bone on display in museums.

Early cards used wrappers instead of boxes, so don’t expect to find a box for the early cards. The wrappers were flimsy and usually thrown away.

Revenue stamps were also applied to cards for sale until 1965, and this is another feature to look for when purchasing cards. However, even after that was repealed, some companies affixed their own stamp to seal the deck, so the presence of a stamp does not automatically confer age.

The Collector’s Guide to Playing Cards, (ISDN: 978-0-7643-4482-4), soft back, is priced at $34.99. Check with your local bookseller first; or visit

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