Engraved Playing Cards

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

Thanks to the lovers of woodcuts, prints, and engravings, the history of European Playing Cards has been preserved. Through these it has been investigated, as it would have been impossible in any other way, since the men who are devoted to the card table are not usually of an investigating turn of mind, while those who prophesy with cards prefer the occult and mysterious to the scientific.

It was far otherwise with the dilettanti, who recognised the master hand that had produced beautiful pictures, intrinsically valuable, although put to what, in the opinion of connoisseurs, was a debased use. Since the cards, as gamblers’ tools, or the instruments of diviners, had little attraction for print lovers, the latter traced the origin of the cards from an interest in the method of their production. But the history of these instruments followed, since it was an integral part of the story of the pictures that had at first been produced by hand, and then by mechanical arts. This led to an awakened desire to understand the connection of the gambling toys with the period when prints were first issued. But when these learned men studied the histories of the European countries for the first printed or legal record of Playing Cards, and decided on the fourteenth century as the date of their birth, they never looked into the haze of the past to the period when cards were not bits of pasteboard, but of very different character. So the mystery of their origin was not unfolded, although all of the written records mentioned that cards were called the Book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, who was evidently an unknown person.

It was owing to the necessity of producing cards cheaply, on account of their widespread use, that xylographic arts were invented and perfected, thus leading the way to printing, that art which has enlightened mankind as nothing had done before in the same space of time.

Mr. Singer states that “the earliest examples of woodcuts were intended for Playing Cards,” although it is generally believed that the earliest example of a woodcut that survives is the picture of St. Christopher, which was discovered pasted inside of the cover of an old book. Many Playing Cards have been preserved in the same way, since frugal persons utilized the precious paper on which the cards were printed, and did not waste it, as is done in this extravagant age.

That the oldest known print is that of a saint does not disprove Mr. Singer’s statement, for many of the rude figures produced by the first engravers served a double purpose, being equally well adapted for court cards or as representations of historical or saintlike characters, they were often adopted first for the games, and then transferred to the homes of peasants, where the pictures were accorded the name of a patron saint and revered accordingly, so in many such places priceless cuts and engravings have been found, and from there have been transferred to museums or to private print collections, where they are recognised as rare and valuable specimens of the art of the graver’s tool.

These old figures and the cards that followed them are not classed under the head of games or Playing Cards, so students wishing to examine examples of early European Playing Cards must seek the print rooms of the British Museum, or the Nuremburg Museum, and the national libraries of Vienna, Bologna, and Paris.

Since among the first productions of the graver’s tools were gambling cards, Mr. Singer and others have studied the games for which so much time and labour were devoted. “It is evident,” he says, “that since the earliest specimens of engraving on steel and on copper both in Italy and Germany are cards, there must have been a great demand for them, and that their cheap production was eagerly seized upon by the card makers, who through it considerably shortened their labours and increased their output, so from this moment games with cards rapidly spread over Europe,” while the Book of Thoth was abandoned to gypsies and fortune-tellers.

The cards painted under Grigoneur for the French king, and now in Les Cabinet des Estampes, Paris, are probably the oldest extant, and are about contemporary with the Italian packs in Bologna and those in Mr. Morgan’s collection, that are painted, but not engraved.

A pack in the British Museum goes by the name of Doctor Stukley’s cards, for he was the first to exhibit them. They are stencilled and have German pips. There is no Queen among the court cards, but her place is taken by a male figure called Ober, accompanied by a King and Unter. There are no Aces, so the cards were probably intended for the popular game of Sixty-six. These cards were rudely printed and coloured with stencils. They were first shown to the society of Antiquarians, London, November 9, 1763, and have been frequently exhibited and discussed. They were found in the binding of an old book, supposed to be Claudian, printed before 1500, and to these we owe a debt of gratitude for exciting an interest in Playing Cards, to which much of their history is due. The supposition that the German pips were used in England before the French cards were introduced is sustained only by finding this solitary pack. The book itself was not printed in England, while the name assigned to the suit of Spades is clearly derived from the Spanish Espadas, which points to the probability of the Swords, Rods, Cups, and Money pips having been known in England. The Trèfle of France was called a Club, as had probably been done with the Rod suit of the old cards.

A nearly complete pack bearing these designs and almost facsimiles of the Stukley pack is in the Historical Society of New York.

Among the earliest specimens of ornamental engraved cards are some that were executed at Cologne, the different cards of which are so widely separated that the complete pack can nowhere be found. Solitary examples are scattered in different museums, where they are treasured as beautiful representations of “the master’s” art, although no person knows his name. The wrapper of these cards has been found, and on it is a well-executed design of three ornamental crowns, placed inside of Gothic arches, that are connected by a gracefully twisted ribbon on which is the inscription “Salve Felix Colonia” which is the only remaining clue to the engraver, the date of execution, and the birthplace of the pack.

In it are five suits instead of four, and these have original emblems that, however, never seem to have been popular or intended for gambling, or even for divination, but they were probably the invention of the artist, who had little idea of the significance of the original emblems of Cups, Swords, Staves, and Money, for not only was a fifth and unprofitable suit added to the pack, but the pips were changed to artistic designs that may delight the senses of the connoisseurs, but fail to appeal to a card player, since the designer was evidently not as clever as the Frenchmen, who invented a new set of emblems for their royal master, and through constructing the game Piquet, that could only be played with these cards, clinched their adoption by players. The five suits of these German cards were Hares, Parrots, Pinks, Roses, and Columbines, with four court cards to each suit, and they are illustrated in “Playing Cards,” by Mr. Singer (page 47), and are attributed by him to Martin Schoen, or Schongaur. “The costume of the figures,” he says, “belongs to the fifteenth century, and seems conclusively to establish the fact.” To this statement other authorities do not agree.

One of the earliest examples of Playing Cards executed on copper was produced in Germany before 1446. The artist is known only by his initials, and is called “The Master E. S.” His cards are original and finely executed, although his emblems stray as far from the ancient ones peculiar to Mercury as the games to be played with them differ from divination. The devices are Roses, Cyclamen, Savages, Birds, Stags, and Lions. This “Master E. S.” seems to have copied most of his designs for a smaller set of cards, and he also executed a pack that had Shields, Flowers, Animals, and Helmets for pips. These are artistically grouped, and the escutcheons display coats-of-arms of the nobility that go far to establish the date of those that are not marked. But the pips, although they were gracefully marshaled, were troublesome and confusing to the players, which has caused these cards to be chiefly valued as examples of the graver’s art, lacking the simplicity of the French pips, with their harmonious red and black colours, these peculiar designs failed to revolutionise the Playing Cards in common use, as had evidently been the intention of “The Master.”

The little that is known of “E. S.” points to his having been the immediate predecessor of Martin Schongaur, of Colmar, who was the unrivalled engraver of his time, and has been described as the Van Eyck of engraving. He was “the actual creator of the art as practiced in modern times,” says Max Lehrs in his essay on the Playing Cards engraved by this master. “To him we owe the technical method of producing the appearance of relief and solidity on a flat surface by the combination of a number of parallel lines on transverse lines, which effect had only been obtainable before his invention by the addition of colour to the finished prints.” His home was probably in the vicinity of Freiburg, or Breisach, and it is supposed that he died in 1467.

The cards attributed to “E. S.” are scattered over Europe, but they seem to be universally acknowledged as the first specimens of engraved Playing Cards. The dainty pictures served as models to the students of the Master, and have often been copied or adopted as accessories to other pictures. The Four of Men and the Ober Knave of the same suit, the Four of Dogs, and the Three of Birds were used to adorn the cover of a Bible that is now in the University Library of Erlangen. These designs were also used in the tooling of other books.

Augsburg may lay strong claim to be considered the first seat of the art of engraving on wood, as a Guild of Card Makers is mentioned in the Town Roll of 1418. Sheets of cardboard on which the pack was printed from the block, but not yet coloured by hand, are to be found in museums, and it is supposed that the celebrated woodcut of St. Christopher, dated 1423, was produced in Augsburg, which about that time became the great exporting centre of card makers, against whom the manufacturers of Vienna, Venice, and Viterbo caused ordinances to be passed in their respective cities, forbidding the Augsburg and Nuremburg cards to be sold within their boundaries. This law is enforced to-day, which has prevented the introduction of foreign or French pips into Austria and Italy.

An interesting sheet of cards produced by the tool was acquired by the writer in Nuremburg in 1910. It is about ten by twelve inches in size, and is made of several sheets of paper pasted together. The reverse side shows a lozenge pattern, and each one of the spaces contains a fleur de lis, emphasised at the corner by a square. The sheet has not been cut apart, and there are eighteen cards printed on it, comprising all those belonging to the court, and six pip cards bearing the usual German devices. The figures do not include a Queen, but have the King, the Ober, and the Unter. The King of Eicheln (or Acorns) is seated, wears a crown on top of a turban, and holds a sceptre. His Ober and Unter both carry two swords. Their dresses are richly trimmed and they wear lace at the neck and wrists.

The King of Grünen (or Leaves) also wears a crown on top of a turban, but holds his sword in his right hand instead of his left, as is the case with his brother of Acorns. His chair is more ornate than that of any of the other kings. He wears at his neck two muslin lapels, such as were once worn with black silk gowns by ministers when preaching. One of his Knaves plays a flute, the other beats a drum. The King of Bells wears a five-pointed coronet and has a book on his knees. His Ober has a wig and a richly embroidered coat, but is bareheaded, as is his Unter, who is a ludicrously stout figure, parrying a thrust with his sword from an unseen warrior. The King of Hearts has a crown with fleurs de lis, and on the side of his chair is an anchor with the initials M. S., leading to the supposition that these cards were engraved by Martin Schongaur, the successor to the “Master E. S.” The execution, however, is far inferior to his usual delicate work. The Ober of Hearts is armed with a pike and his hair is tied with ribbons, the two ends of which float carelessly down his back. He and the Unter of his suit can “ruffle with the best of them,” for both have side arms as well as long pikes, and their coats are handsomely embroidered, while they wear lace at the throat and wrists.

The four Deuces are on this sheet. That of Hearts has an escutcheon on which is a lion rampant. The Two of Leaves shows a deer and a unicorn rampant regardant. The Two of Acorns has a Bacchus astride of a beer barrel, holding up the Cup of Hermes, and the Two of Grünen has the sow sacred to Prosperine and Mercury, that was always sacrificed to them at the feast of Hermes, on the thirteenth of May, when Spring commenced, and Mercury led Prosperine from Pluto back to earth and to her Mother, Ceres. The pig was also sacred to Nebo, so its position on the cards is fraught with meaning. The Ten of Leaves and the Seven of Hearts complete this valuable sheet that shows an early process of card production.

Early Italian Tarots
Pip and Court Cards of the Money Suit


A beautiful pack of cards was engraved by Jost Ammon, who was born in Zurich in 1539. His wood engravings are very numerous. He died in Nuremburg in 1591. The interesting cards attributed to him were published, it was said, to inculcate “Industry and Learning” rather than “Idleness and Debauchery,” so may be placed under the head of Educational Cards. Each one shows a pip, under which is a clever sketch that is fully described by some appropriate Latin verses. The pips are Books, Winepots, Cups, and Printer’s Balls. One of the cards represents a wood carver at work, supposed to be a likeness of the artist. Another shows a printer. A third has on it a bibliomaniac surrounded by flies that he is striking at with a flapper, and the accompanying verses are forcible, if inelegant. On the Three of Printer’s Balls are a lady and gentleman playing cards. The Six of Winepots shows two men at a game of Draughts. Some of the cards have pictures of men and women playing musical instruments, while others depict various homely occupations.

These symbols did not take the place of those simple devices that convey at a glance to a player the suit or number of a card, so necessary from a gambler’s point of view. Their authorship has been disputed, but the cards remain as interesting specimens of wood engraving.

The greater part of the early Italian cards are printed with a pale ink of a grayish tint. The earliest specimens are a set of Tarots that are much larger than the standard size of Playing Cards, being about four by six and a half inches. These cards are finely executed, and are one of the first of the educational packs, since the emblematic figures of the Atouts are Rhetoric, Arithmetic, etc.

The specimens of engraved cards of the Netherlands are of a later date, being about the middle of the eighteenth century. They are carefully done, and the two red suits are distinguished by being printed with a pale red ink, while the Spades and Clubs are printed in black. These cards are pretty miniature pictures, with local figures and landscapes, while the pips are French and are placed in the upper left-hand corner.

The Dutch have also several educational packs of cards. Some are historical, with Kings, Queens, and Knaves representing their royalties. There is also one showing the chief products of their kingdom and its dependencies. A third pack illustrates the costumes of the different provinces.

Germans, French and English were very fond of teaching children through educational games of cards, and a great collection of these may be found in the print room of the British Museum under the head of Lady Charlotte Schrieber’s Collection, but it is carelessly kept in drawers, the packs tied with bits of string or worsted, and it is difficult to study on this account.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved