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The Fascinating World
of Playing Cards

Report of the lecture given by Yasha Beresiner
on April 25th 2012

At the end of Wednesday's talk several members commented that they had never imagined that a lecture with this title would turn out to be quite so fascinating or quite so much fun.

Yasha pointed out very early on that playing cards are familiar to every one of us and so at least we were starting off on known territory, unlike the beginning of some other lectures where we may not have had the first clue about a particular building or artist or movement. However, we were soon led outside our comfort zone as we learned how playing cards had developed through the ages, fulfilling countless different and often surprising roles.

Before looking at their beginnings, a couple of interesting facts about playing cards ....... Firstly, the familiar English suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades were once upon a time counterbalanced in Spain by batons, swords, cups and coins and in Germany by bells, hearts, leaves and acorns. Secondly, packs vary enormously in value. The exquisitely illustrated Flemish Hunting Deck fetched £90,000 when it was last sold at auction, in stark contrast to a standard modern-day pack made in China which can be bought at wholesale rates for just 7p.

The exact origin of playing cards is unknown but the earliest reference to them was in Italy in 1377. However, it was not a reference that augured well for their future as they were in fact banned for reputedly being a contributory factor to drunkenness in Florence.

In 1792 after the Revolution the sight of crowned heads on their playing cards was offensive to the French, and so the crowns were simply cut off and the kings turned into sages, the queens into virtues and the jacks became heroes. However, ever keen to adapt to the changing political situation, the government expediently reversed the decision in 1813!

Until 1820 the court cards were standing but then became mirrored, and forty years later indices were added by the Americans (who also introduced jokers), so now the cards were very much easier to hold, read and sort in the hand.

At different periods of time the backs of the cards were illustrated with current affairs stories such as the South Sea Bubble and the Popish Plots, with county maps which for the first time showed roads, with satirical cartoons, with musical scores such as "The Beggar's Opera", with proverbs or with the coats of arms of the nobility. It's quite an entertaining thought that playing cards could be considered very early forerunners of the BBC News Channel, the TomTom or "Private Eye"! Indeed, the tradition of political cartoons continues right up to modern times with packs of cards being issued by the Americans after World War Two showing Hitler and Mussolini as the jokers, or with the British producing a Playing Politics or Cabinet Shuffle pack in 1983 when, very conveniently, there were four political parties contesting the General Election (Conservative, Labour, Liberal and SDP) which could represent the four traditional suits.

Yasha's deep interest in playing cards had stemmed from a boyhood collection of coins and banknotes when he discovered that during the French Revolution there had been a shortage of notes and so the blank backs of playing cards were called into service. If that had been the starting point of his lifelong fascination, then the high point must surely have been his installation as Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards.

There were plenty of questions at the end but none of us asked Yasha if, as well as being a collector of cards, he was also a player!

Alison Morton

Yasha Beresiner with his wonderful playing card tie.