Object lesson No. 11 Playing cards

17th March 2000 at 00:00
It's raining in St Mark's Square, Venice. A solitary merchant shivers as he shelters a package under his robes. He has brought a gift for the Doge, one that has travelled the Silk Road from China. His name is Marco Polo and he is carrying Europe's first pack of playing cards.

That is the most popular explanation of how cards arrived in the West around 1300. No one knows for certain, though. They may have come from India or have been brought by the Moorish conquerors of Spain. Once they got to Europe their progress becomes clearer.

The early 78-card packs were hand-painted on wood, metal, ivory or tortoise shell. There were the four standard suits each with 14 cards. These represented the four classes of people: a cup for the clergy; sword for the knights; coin for the merchants; and stave for the peasants. Then there was a joker and the 21 tarot cards that made up the fifth suit.

The tarot cards became known as "triumphs" from which the word "trump" emerged. As the deck slimmed down this fifth suit gradually fell into disuse until in the 18th century people started to use it just for fortune-telling. The knight was also driven outof the remaining suits leaving just the king, queen and knave holding court.

This 52-card pack was popular in France; the Spanish stuck at 40, and the Germans went further, dealing themselves only 32. The French won the round and their model, with its own version of the old symbols, crossed the Channel in the 15th century. The carreau or square became the diamond; the heart remained itself; and the trefoil evolved into the club. The pique (pike) looked like a spade so they called it one.

Governments have often gambled on people's love of cards to raise money. In Austria high taxes fuelled the manufacture of huge cards which could be used over and over again by just trimming down dog-eared edges.

In England Charles I started taxing card makers in 1628 and they were soon paying the huge sum of half-a-crown a pack. By 1765 manufacturers had to apply to the commissioner of stamps for acknowledgement that they had paid their dues. Without this they couldn't sell their wares - not because they were forbidden to, but because there were only 51 cards in their packs. Number 52, the ace of spades, had become the official receipt.

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