playing cards, parts of a set or deck, used in playing various games of chance or skill. The origin of playing cards is unknown, and almost as many theories exist as there are historians of the subject. Playing cards were used hundreds of years ago in Europe and probably long before that in Asia. In the British Museum there is a 14th-century manuscript depicting a card game played by a king and two courtiers; the arrangement of the pips on the cards is similar to that of the present day. Playing cards are referred to in the household expense accounts of Charles VI of France for 1392. In 1397 the provost of Paris issued an edict prohibiting the people from playing certain games on working days, and among these, cards are mentioned. The manufacture of playing cards in Germany dates from the beginning of the 15th cent., and in Italy they were made in 1425. Playing cards appeared in England in 1463, and the earliest designs produced there were painted by hand. There were usually four suits; in Germany these were called hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns, while in Italy they were known as swords, batons, cups, and money. The present-day variety of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades was adopted in France in the 16th cent. In addition to these cards, called numeral cards, there were also cards known as tarots, or triomphes (trumps), because when played in combination with numeral cards the tarots had a higher value. A full pack consisted of 78 cards, the 22 tarots and 56 others that were divided into four suits of 14 cards each. Out of this pack developed the modern standard deck, consisting of 52 cards, divided into four suits (spades and clubs, black; hearts and diamonds, red). In each suit there are king, queen, knave (or jack), and 10 cards bearing pips from 1 (the ace, the highest card in most games) to 10. In gambling games such as poker, an extra card called the joker is often used.
See R. Tilley, A History of Playing Cards (1973); D. Hoffman, The Playing Card: An Illustrated History (1974).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.