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History of the playing card at Sidmouth Museum

06:22 03 August 2014

Playing cards at Sidmouth Museum

Playing cards at Sidmouth Museum


Anyone who is under the age of 25 to 30 will no doubt be the proud owner of a mobile phone, games console and possibly an iPad to keep their minds occupied and entertained but may not be aware of the humble pack of playing cards, writes Sidmouth Museum collections manager Peter Soper.

Playing cards at Sidmouth MuseumPlaying cards at Sidmouth Museum

To many of this generation it is probably not exciting enough compared with the many hand-held devices available to them today.

I write, not in defence of cards, but to say that in my younger days it was a source of great family entertainment and remains a game still played today in clubs, public houses and, indeed, in many homes.

Cards were invented in Imperial China.

Playing cards are known to have been used in China in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

The first reference to card games dates from the 9th century when the Collection Of Miscellania at Duyang, written by Tang Dynasty writer Su E, described Princess Tongchang daughter of Emporer Yizong of Tang playing the Leaf Game in 868 with members of the Wei clan – the family of the Princess’ husband.

Playing cards first entered Europe in the early 14th century from Mamluck Egypt with suits (sets of cards with matching designs) very similar to the Tarot suits of swords, staves, cups and coins (also known as discs or pentacles), and which are still used in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese decks.

Originally, court cards, king, queen and jack were not reversible as they are now and that meant that other players could get a hint of what other players’ hands contained after the deal when watching them reverse their cards!

In Great Britain the pack with reversible court cards was patented in 1799 by Edmund Ludlow.

Today, a pack of standard playing cards consists of 52 cards in four suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades – made of card specially prepared, heavy paper, thin cardboard, plastic-coated paper, cotton paper blend, or thin plastic marked with distinguishing motifs and used as one of a set, or pack for playing various games.

Most of modern-day cards are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) so that they wear less and last longer.

Playing card games is great way for children to learn a variety of basic skills, including counting, taking turns, basic strategy, being a good sport and a good loser!!

For adults the number of variations of the games available to play is huge some are played for fun but a lot are played for money, this could prove dangerous when played by men folk in the Wild West.

In the museum we have a display on the first floor showing some standard cards, children’s card games and some of the more unusual types of playing cards including original non reversible court cards.

On a lighter note I have watched, on many occasions, colleagues of mine playing a game called euchre and having a whale of a time but to my chagrin it’s still a mystery to me how to play it!


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