Point Cards with French Pips

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

When Mercury’s emblems were discarded by the French, some four hundred years since, to be replaced by local designs, it was but natural that the points should be accorded original and appropriate significances at their birthplace, as well as in the alien countries where these new pips were adopted. Names were suggested by the shape or usage of the device in different games or under noteworthy occasions.

Thus, the Pique of the French (the shape of which was derived from the outline of the hallebarde of the soldiers who were on guard about their king) received from the English the name of Spade, and for this several derivations have been given. One of them is that the shape resembled that of the shovel or spade common among miners, but the more probable origin is the one that is suggested from the Tarot pip called by the Spaniards Espadas, the name of which was transferred to the new emblem, which is a suggestion that the Tarot cards were not unknown in England before the arrival of the French pack, although no cards of this period have been found in England.

This is strange, for fragments of an old pack called Dr. Stukley’s cards are now in the British Museum, bearing Bells and other German emblems. They are of about the date of the invention of the French pips, but since they were found in the binding of a Latin book that may have been imported into England, the originals may never have been used in that country.

In Yorkshire, the common people call a Diamond a “Picke,” says Mr. Taylor, “because it is picked or sharp-pointed as the diamond stone.” Other authorities declare that “it is to be gathered from its resemblance to a mill-pick,” and others assume that the small window frames of early days are responsible for the name Diamond, as they were generally lozenge or diamond-shaped. The name “Picke” may also have been a corruption of the French Pique, assigned from the original to the pip of another colour.

The name Club by no means describes the clover or sorrel leaf that was the emblem adopted by Agnes Sorel, but was probably the name originally given to the Rod or caduceus of the Tarots, again showing that these cards were probably known in England before the French pips became fashionable. They may have appeared first at court, and then among the noblemen and upper classes, although it was probably a hundred years before these emblems became common, as fashions moved slowly in those days and cards were not cheaply reproduced, but for some time were expensive luxuries only to be found among the rich.

Hearts are the only pips whose emblem is correctly described by its name.

The name of Ace seems to have been derived from As or Asso, which was the unit of the Roman coinage. It is represented by a single device, placed in the centre of the card, a fashion followed in all countries.

A nickname for the Ace of Diamonds in Ireland is “the Earl of Cork.” This is explained by Mr. Taylor, who says: “It was because it is the worst Ace and the poorest card in the pack, and the Earl of Cork was the poorest nobleman.”

The Spaniards call the Ace of Money Le Borgne, or “the one-eyed.” The Trey of that suit is Le Seigneur. The Trey of Cups is named La Dame, or the Lady, and the Deuce of that suit La Vache, or the Cow. The Nines of Cups and of Money are “the great and little Nines,” while the Ace of Sticks is “the serpent.” This is the caduceus of Mercury, around which originally were wound the two heraldic snakes, which have now degenerated into two strips or ribbons.

The Aces of the Swiss pack have flags wrapped around the central pip, and those of Germany have beer mugs and kindred subjects printed on them. In European countries, cards can only be purchased from tobacconists or in beer gardens.

The Spaniards call the Two spot Dos, the Germans name it Daus, and the French and English dub it Deuce. Although it is always the lowest in the pack, since in almost all games the Aces are “high,” there is an old proverb which says, “There’s luck under the black Deuce,” and old whist players had a habit of trying to prevent the good fortune from falling to an adversary when they turned it up for trumps by saying, “Not when the right elbow is on it,” and suiting the action to the word.

In England, at one time, the Nine of Diamonds was called “the curse of Scotland,” or “the cross of Scotland,” referring to the arrangement of the pips, which, with the addition of a few connecting lines, can be made to look like the heraldic St. Andrew’s cross on the arms of Scotland. Mr. Taylor quotes on page 235 from “The Oracle or Resolver of Questions” (1770), saying “the Crown of Scotland had but nine diamonds in it, so that was the origin of the name for that card.”

An explanation is given for calling the card “a curse,” as there is a tradition that it was on this card that “the Butcher Duke of Cumberland” wrote his sanguinary order after the battle of Culloden, and yet another reason given is that, in the game called after her, the Nine of Diamonds is named Pope Joan, to whom a large forfeit must be paid. Old Chinese laquered boxes, that also contained beautifully carved mother-of-pearl counters (chips), always had several little trays in them, which obviated the necessity for spoiling a fresh pack of cards and folding them for the necessary trays. The Chinese boxes had the Kings, Queens, Knaves, and Nines of Diamonds painted on their bottom. These were placed in the centre of the table and the forfeited counters paid into them. The game called for one chip to be paid to the King, two to the Queen, three to the Knave, and four to Pope Joan (the Nine of Diamonds), causing this card to be disliked by players, who considered it “a curse.”

We call the Three spot a Trey, which name is probably derived from the Spanish Tres or the French Trois.

The Four of Hearts is sometimes called Bob Collingwood, and is by some considered an unlucky card, while the Four of Spades has received the name of Ned Stokes; but these are probably localisms and have but little interest for the general public. The Four of Clubs is nicknamed “the Devil’s bed-posts,” and in the old game of Gleek all the Fours were named Tiddy. The Four of Money frequently bears the emblem of the double star, signifying the “house of David,” that was one of the signs adopted by Freemasons.

In the game of Gleek the Fives were called Towser, and the Sixes Tumbler, and these were lucky cards, as they counted double when they were turned up as Trumps.

“In Ireland,” says Mr. Taylor, “the Six of Hearts is called ‘Grace’s card,’ from the spirited answer returned by one of that family to Marshal Schomberg, who sent to tempt Grace to espouse the cause of William of Orange. A reply was written on the Six of Hearts as follows: ‘Tell your master that I despise his offer, and that honour and conscience are dearer to me than all the wealth and titles that a prince can bestow.’”

Lady Dorothy Nevill, in her interesting book, “Under Five Reigns,” says (page 320): “Visiting cards, it is not generally known, originated from ordinary playing cards, which were used as such as late as the end of the eighteenth century. A proof of this is that when, some time ago, certain repairs were being made at a house in Dean Street, Soho, a few playing cards were found with names written on their backs behind a marble chimney piece. One of the cards in question was inscribed Isaac Newton, and the house had been the residence of his father-in-law, Hogarth, in one of whose pictures of Marriage a la Mode, Plate IV, several ‘playing card’ visiting cards may be seen lying on the floor on the right side of the picture. On one of them is inscribed, ‘Count Basset begs to no how Lady Squander slept last nite.’ As time went on, specially devised visiting cards with somewhat ornate calligraphy took the place of playing cards, and these, in time, developed into the small and simple pieces of pasteboard in use to-day.”

Although the Tarots and the cards of many nations have well-decorated engraved backs, these sometimes were simply chequered or covered with tiny dots, which made some writers believe the name Tarot to be derived fromtaroté, or spotted; but this was not the case, since the original name for cards was the “Book of Thoth.”


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





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