10 vintage decks of playing cards you'll want to own



2018-02-09 15:25:33

An evening spent playing cards is an evening connecting with our ancestors. 

People have been playing card games since the 9th century AD. 

Players have been enjoying today's most popular card game, Bridge, for well over 100 years.   

And if you're playing with an old deck, think of all the people who too have held the meld of diamonds you hold in your hands. 

It's possibly why old packs of cards send such a thrill down the spine. 

Here are 10 to lust over. 

Early beginnings

We think the first card games originated in China in the 9th century AD. The oldest surviving fragments of playing cards are from the 12th and 13th centuries. 

15th century playing cards from Venice - image:

15th century playing cards from Venice - image: World of Playing Cards

Above are a selection of rare 15th century cards from Venice. 

A 17th century French king

Image: eBay

A rare 17th century French king - image: eBay

This King of Hearts was produced in Rouen, France circa 1647. Despite his great wear, the scarcity of playing cards of this age ensured he sold for $2,250 in 2018. 

Saladee's Patent 

The 1864 "Saladee's Patent" cards, made by Samuel Hart, were the first with corner indices showing the rank and suit. It meant you could now hold the cards in a tight fan – perfect for preventing any snooping from your opponents, and vital if there was money to be won and lost. Originals are hugely rare. 

This type of card quickly became known as a "squeezer".

Tight fans in evidence in Canada

Tight fans in evidence in Canada's gold country - image: Yukon Archives

Pygmy playing cards

The jack had originally been called the knave. But the Saladee's Patent cards dispensed with this tradition, having decided the "K" abbreviations for King and "Kn" for knave would be too confusing.

Yet some companies persevered with the tradition. 

Thomas de la Rue made these "Pygmy" cards circa 1890 in the UK.


Don't get your knaves and your kings mixed up - image: World of Playing Cards

The first joker 

Do you play Euchre? Then you'll know all about how the jacks (or should that be knaves) are called bowers. Still following? Well, in 1860 players in the US created an additional "best bower" out of a blank card. Within three years Samuel Hart had created "the best bower" card and added it to his packs. They were being called jokers by the early 1870s, from juker - the German spelling of euchre. 

We have euchre to thank for the introduction of jokers

We have euchre to thank for the introduction of jokers - image: Wikimedia Commons

A headless joker

Jokers are highly collectible today. This rare headless example from Bicycle recently sold for $15. 

A rare headless variant of joker - image: eBay

A rare headless variant of joker - image: eBay

The Ace of Spades

Why does the Ace of Spades usually contain the maker's name and a touch of beautification? 

Because in the 17th century, England's King James I demanded it be so – for tedious tax purposes

The law was only withdrawn in 1960. The practice of giving the Ace of Spades some extra pizzazz continues today. 

As demonstrated by the US military in Vietnam. 

The US Army believed the Viet Cong viewed spades as bad luck symbols that represented death. So card manufacturer Bicycle shipped out vast quantities of the card to the battle lines. US soldiers and airplanes scattered these about in the hope of demoralising their opponents. They also left them on the bodies of the Viet Cong. 

The US military believed this card would cause havoc among the Viet Cong - Image: eBay

The US military believed this card would cause havoc among the Viet Cong - image: eBay

It has since been suggested that the Viet Cong never viewed the cards as bad luck.

"Did it work? I'm not sure," a solider is quoted in Cowboys Full, a book documenting the history of playing cards. "Did it help our morale? I definitely think so!"

You can pick up single cards for less than $10. 

The Murphy Varnish

Playing cards have been hugely popular vehicles for advertising since the 19th century. All manner of companies have got in on the act. 

image: eBay

Remember, "use only The Murphy Varnish" - image: eBay

These "The Murphy Varnish" cards from 1883 sold for $1,700 in 2017.


image: eBay

TWA folded in 2001, making its playing cards nostalgic mementoes - image: eBay

Airlines gave away free packs to high fliers. These are from TWA in the 1970s.


image: eBay

This Coca-Cola pack from 1963 is worth around $50 - image: eBay

Watson's Ice Cream

image: eBay

Ice cream from Michigan? It happened. And there's playing cards to prove it - image: eBay

Carson City Casino

image: eBay

The Carson City Nugget casino is still going - image: eBay

Unopened packs from celebrated casinos are hugely popular with collectors. The rarer the better. These from the Carson City Nugget casino sold for $600 recently. 


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