History Of The Playing Cards Suits & Symbols

Poker is an ancient game! And it has a colourful history. But, do you know that bright history? We are sure, you don’t. You just play poker online and do not think about or read about the history linked to it. And thus we have brought to you a small tale of playing cards. Read on: 

The notion of suit symbols might have started off with Chinese ‘Money’ cards. But, the suits which made their way into Europe were most likely a variation of the Islamic cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks.  

As Europeans didn’t know what the polo sticks were they shifted them as batons. And they became what we know these days as the ‘Latin’ suit-signs. These were used in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula and Italy until French Card makers had a bright commercial triumph of inventing the ‘French’ suit-signs which are much simpler to make. 

In the meantime, by the end of the fifteenth century, playing cards had put on most of Western Europe. The varied cultural contexts and printing techniques led to a variety of playing card types and styles. Stereotyped designs odd to exact regions evolved and became standard patterns. But the combos of court hierarchy and suit symbols were not always uniform and stable.  

Numerous designs

In numerous cases we see Kings climbed on horseback, in many other cases seated on thrones. Numerous packs contained Queens and attendants; others preferred horsemen and foot soldiers. Many packs had additional trump cards or five suits. In several regions the suit signs were somewhat fluid and included everyday objects, animals, helmets, hunting kit or flowers. Packs are known with suit symbols such as: crowns, roses, hearts, pennies and rings or bells, leaves and acorns. 

We do not know exactly why this happened. But we can wonder that diverse cultural, artistic and iconographic traditions. Distinct feudal, noble or regal court hierarchies, liberal or conservative tendencies. The migration of craftsmen along with the exportation of artisanal goods and crafts to other markets. Even linguistic influences and fashions in clothing, played a part in how the pack of playing cards changed and was accepted in various regions.  

16th century Portuguese mariners introduced their Latin-suited ‘Dragon’ playing cards into Japan. They were then banned in a prohibition of 1648. But they recurred in disguised forms and advanced into numerous variant types. The dragon on the Aces was accustomed by the Japanese in Unsun Karuta, and by the Javanese too. While the name for the cards, “Karuta”, is copied from the Portuguese. Likewise, the Native American Indians made cards with their own understanding of Spanish suit symbols based on those used by Spanish sailors and kept them even after French-suited cards had arrived from Europe. 

Export of the cards

It is known from numerous sources that cards were exported at a premature date from Germany to Italy, packed in barrels. Late 15th century German Card makers produced Italian and Spanish-suited cards in the new system of engraving, in an elaborate Gothic style, which were exported to foreign markets and influenced local creation in those places. 

To summarize, first came the Latin suit systems, which are still used in Spain, America, Italy, the Philippines, a few parts of France and North Africa. The courts were perhaps all-male to start with, but female pages and queens were soon introduced. Germanic suit systems evolved after a period of testing with different combos of suits, and at last the French suit system was invented as a technical innovation in which the number cards were simplified, and which has turn into the most widely-used suit system around the globe. 

The next time when you play poker, remember you are playing with the cards which have bright historical tale to remember. 

Happy playing!