Excerpted from our booklet "Early Card Games".

Among the earliest decks of cards known is one surviving from 12th, or 13th century Egypt. This deck matches later Italian decks, and suggests that "European" cards probably originated in the Middle East. There is fairly clear evidence that card began appearing in Europe during the 1370's. By the 1400's, cards were a growth industry in Europe, and their history to a large extent also reflects a history of the early printing industry. By 1420 German and Swiss card-makers were producing packs in thousands, first by stencil, by wood-block printing and later by metal-engraving.

The earliest cards were restricted to upper classes because they were individually hand-made and painted. However, less expensive decks must have been produced in large numbers soon afterwards. Bernadine of Sienna is said to have preached against gaming in Bologna so successfully in 1423 that the people burned their cards by the thousands. In 1452, an even larger bonfire in the city of Nurnberg -reportedly fuelled by 3,640 Backgammon boards, 40,000 dice and comparable number of playing cards- was inspired by Bernadine's disciple, John Capistran. Even if these numbers were inflated by propaganda, it is plain that playing cards must have been very commonplace items.

Early card makers did not use standard suits, but rather experimented with a large variety from animals, birds, flowers, to "hardware" such as bells, keys, thimbles, etc. Standardization in suits was beginning by the end of the 15th century, at least on a national basis, with Germans and Swiss favoring shields, acorns, flowers and bells; and the Spanish, swords, clubs, cups and coins. The French invented the standard suits (hearts, spades, clubs, diamonds) known in the United States about 1480.

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