According to those in the know, playing cards first appeared in 9th century China, and they took Europe by storm in the late 14th century. The four suits – as we know them – stem from 15th century France, and face cards were changed to represent European royalty around that time too.
The King used to be the highest card, but the French Revolution chopped its head by playing “ace-high” games to symbolize the rise of lower classes above the royalty. How’s that? Next time somebody berates you for “wasting time on card games” you will be prepared to put them in their place by bringing up the historical and even revolutionary importance of cards.
A bit of trivia: the modern deck of cards is called “French deck” in most languages, but in English it is called “Anglo-American playing cards.” This is especially funny because as a norm the English and French – whose bad relations date from centuries ago – were keen to assign unsavory things to the other country, as in the case of “the French disease” (called “la maladie anglaise” in French.) However, both countries were more than willing to call playing cards their own.
Regardless of whether they were “French” or “English”, playing cards entered the US in the early 1800s and evolved fast in this vibrant environment. The joker card was invented in America and exported back to Europe along with another ground-breaking invention: the game of Poker. This is what expert David Parlett has to say about the origin of the game:
The birth of Poker has been convincingly dated to the first or second decade of the 19th century. It appeared in former French territory centered on New Orleans which was ceded to the infant United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Its cradle was the gambling saloon in general and, in particular, those famous or notorious floating saloons, the Mississippi steamers, which began to ply their trade from about 1811.
Poker swiftly made its way back to England and from there it spread across Europe. However, its home remained in America, where the main additions and variations to the game were devised, such as the split pot and community cards.
And now the scene is set: a deeply European invention brought to the New World evolved into a new game which then spread across both continents.
Stay tuned for part II…