Playing Cards for Educational and other Purposes

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

It was but natural that, from the very date of the readjustment of the Book of Thoth, when it was deposed from its high position of being the voice of the gods to become the tool of gypsies or the toy of gamblers, that invectives should be hurled at it from the pulpit, from whence the early war is continued, as well as from the government, for when pleasure becomes a vice it behooves those in authority to repress it, so as to protect the unwary or the ignorant from traps laid for gain against them.

Cardinal John Capistran, who visited Nuremburg in 1452, found the inhabitants devoted to all games of chance, and so addicted to gambling that the prosperity of the town was threatened.

The good Cardinal preached against the vice of gambling with such fervor and eloquence that the cathedral could not contain the crowds who went to listen to him, so a pulpit was erected before the church, in the great square or Market Place, under the clock, where a procession of wise men bowing before the King still takes place daily at noon, and from this rostrum the Cardinal ordered that all cards, dice, chessmen, draughts (checkers), etc., should be brought before him and publicly burned; an order that was implicitly obeyed.

How well the good man succeeded in obliterating games of chance or hazard may be questioned, since Nuremburg is still one of the chief centres of card making, the descendants of the original makers being in active business to-day, who sell sheets of cardboard that were concealed for many years, on which the cards are printed, but not cut apart, for probably the manufacture was checked at the time, but never entirely suppressed. The celebrated museum of the town has one of the best collections of native Playing Cards to be found, while the dramatic holocaust is recalled with pride by the inhabitants, who value the woodcut that is commemorative of the event.

English preachers denounced card playing, and the Scotch dubbed the packs “The Devil’s Picture Books.” Robert Burns says:

The Ladies, arm in arm, in clusters,
As great and gracious a’ as sisters,
On lee-lang nights, wi’ crabbit leuks.
Pore owre the devil’s pictured beuks.

The Sunday before Christmas, 1529, Bishop Latimer preached a sermon against gambling at St. Edward’s Church, in Cambridge, taking for his text “Who art thou?” and filling his sermon with phrases that were culled from Primero, which was the favourite game of his day. This knowledge showed such an intimate acquaintance with the game that his offended hearers used it with great effect against him. The sermon is now remembered only because of these phrases and expressions that give students a clue to the rules and play of the old game.

One ingenious preacher took for his text: “As God has dealt to every man” (Romans xii:3), implying that the Almighty had sorted and distributed the cards of life. This practical allusion to gambling so horrified his congregation that they nearly pulled the minister from the pulpit. Yet St. Paul evidently referred to the “tablets of fate,” on which the destinies of men were written at birth as “the measure of fate,” since these traditions must have been active in the mind of the apostle. Modern people seldom place themselves in the atmosphere of Biblical times, which leads to much misconstruction and misunderstanding.

The various proclamations and edicts passed against Playing Cards are a history in themselves, although it is a pity that they are of too late a date to throw much light on the first alteration of the cult of Mercury into games, a change that was probably gradual, and so insidious or secret as to have no public record. Still, it is through these legal papers that we get authentic dates and the earliest mention of cards as gambling instruments or toys; but at the end of the fourteenth century, at a time when cards were denounced as such, and by name there is still no interdiction of fortune-telling, which may have been conducted too secretly to occasion attention, or, perhaps, the general law against vagrants or gypsies may have been deemed sufficient protection.

M. la Croix says: “The Germans were the first to apply cards to instructing young persons, by endeavouring to teach them different sciences illustrated by the cards, that had printed on them historical tales, sums of arithmetic, heraldic devices, astronomical symbols, bars of music, or quotations from the poets, with the pips displayed in the corners to deceive people into imagining that they were enjoying a play, when in reality they were being gently led along the paths of learning, and that this idea seems to have found favour in other countries, particularly in Great Britain and France.”

In this list of countries that adapted cards to purposes of instruction might have been included China and Japan, had M. la Croix studied the games of those nations. The latter country has two packs that are devoted to quotations from the poets, or historical tales.

Numerous specimens of these educational cards are now to be found in all card collections, although to those who regard Playing Cards as part of the cult of Mercury these instructive bits of pasteboard are no more related to the Tarots than are advertisements or school books.

There are some puritanical persons who regard Playing Cards with horror, and will not touch “the devil’s picture books” that display the symbols of Hearts, Clubs, etc.; but these same people adopt with avidity these educational cards that sometimes have the pips slyly tucked into a corner. Or, perhaps, they use cards that have numbers printed on them to indicate the pips, with other marks to show the suits and the court cards, so these good people play Grabouche, Pinocle, Bezique, Flip, and other games that are, in truth, recognised as games of chance.

In 1507 a set of instructive cards was invented by Dr. Thomas Muruer, the celebrated opponent of Martin Luther. The pack was printed at Cracow and called Chartiludui Logicae, and these were intended for the use of the inventor’s pupils in the art of reasoning. At first people were delighted with them and their novelty, and then they turned against this method of instruction and threatened to burn the doctor for inventing them.

This pack was an imitation of the Tarots, and was composed of ten logical cards with sixteen suits of emblem cards, the pips being the German Bells, Acorns, Leaves, and Hearts, with additional symbols of crayfish, scorpions, etc.

When Louis XIV was eight years old, it was necessary to educate him, but he was a dull and reluctant pupil, so Cardinal Mazarin invented some “instruction cards” for the youthful king that illustrated fables and proved attractive to others besides the agrammatist.

A little later, some cards depicting the history of France were designed by the artist Desmarits, who, finding that they were received with favour, followed them with a geographical set, and then with one called harlequin, in which the figures of well-known persons were grotesquely dressed.

There are later French packs illustrating the kings and queens of France, and also some that commemorate the Revolution, the Empire, the reign of the Orleans family, and that of Napoleon III; for in that country not only were the cards used for illustrating their historical events, but the court cards changed their dress with the rulers, not keeping to the costumes of the fifteenth century, as the English cards have done.

The French also issued a pack of cards to teach heraldry as early as 1680, and one for music in 1808, while in 1820 two instructive sets were issued, one of them on botany and the other one on astronomy.

Heraldic cards were published by M. Claude Finé in 1659, and others were issued in 1725. This idea was followed in England in 1675, when some German cards were adapted to the needs of the other country. The Germans issued another pack on which were heraldic devices in 1700, and a similar one came out in Venice in 1707. The cards are not useful for gambling or fortune-telling, but they are ornate, and are fine examples of print work, and as such find places in collections.

In 1656 practical cards for teaching spelling, arithmetic, etc., were issued in London by F. Jackson, and at about the same time satirical and political cards were published. Those interested in full descriptions of these packs can find a list in “The Catalogue of Playing and Other Cards in the British Museum,” by Mr. Willshire.

Cards for divination have appeared from time to time, but the emblems were so fanciful and so unauthoritative that the unhistoric designs have not found favour. One of them in the British Museum shows traces of being derived from the Tarots, as Mercury is seen hovering over a sailing vessel under his guise of protector of merchants. It is to be remarked that it is the Seven of Bells and is called Commerce. The Eight of Bells is the Wheel of Fortune. The Two of Leaves is Hope, and the Six of that suit is the Death card. It is evident that the artist picked out at haphazard certain designs on the Tarots for imitation, and that he had no comprehension of the meaning or value of the numbers, such as three, seven, or thirteen, accorded to them by mystics.

Humourous, or what are known as harlequin, cards have been published in all countries, where the emblems themselves have been taken for the foundation of fantastic figures. One of these packs was designed by Mr. William Thackeray. There are several French and Belgian packs, but far the best one was designed by Mr. Charles Caryl and issued by Messrs. Tiffany & Co., New York.

Musical cards are ingenious, and, by following the rules, several pretty airs may be played. Cards for the game of Authors were lately popular, and the game called Doctor Busby was a capital one for teaching children observation and concentration.

The Japanese cards, that have been referred to, are original in conception and design. The pack emblematic of the weeks of the year seems to be intended for gambling, although it shows no traces of a descent from the Tarots, for the cards display no suggestion of the pips or emblems of Mercury. Nor are there any emblematic figures like those of China, where the cards show evident imitations of the Stave, Money, and Sword pips, with some court cards. The Japanese themselves declare that Portuguese sailors introduced gambling cards into the country, but the only proof lies in the tradition and in the name by which cards are known in Japan, which is Karta, for the Portuguese use cards with the Cup, Money, Sword, and Stave pips, and no traces of these are to be found on any of the Japanese packs. In that country divining cards or sticks are used, which seem to have been inherited from China, and the methods of using them follow closely the rules adopted in all primitive countries, where the old superstitions referred to in the Bible are still active and in force.

A chap book of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century had a large circulation, for it described one Richard Middleton, who, being caught playing with a pack of cards in church, was haled before a magistrate, who was amused when the soldier declared that he looked upon the cards as his Prayer Book, and described what they conveyed to him as he ingeniously connected each one with some Biblical reference.

This original description led to his release, and it has frequently been quoted. A variant of the story appeared in “The American Hebrew” that is worth repeating, as the original Christian ideas have been altered to suit the synagogue. It says: “The Ace is the only God. The Deuce, the two tables of stone that Moses broke at one blow. Try to keep them. The Trey is the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The four is our four ancient mothers, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, and Rebecca. The five, the books of Moses. The Six, the six days of the week, and the Seven is the Sabbath, when God rested and the seven-branched candlestick was made. Eight righteous persons were saved from the flood, Noah, his wife, three sons, and their wives. Joab came to Jerusalem at the end of Nine months. Ten Commandments are the cornerstone of the jurisprudence of the civilized world. The Knave is the constable who took me up. He was a fool, or he would not have disturbed me at my devotions. Queen Sheba and King Solomon are the Royal family. The former dressed fifty boys and fifty girls alike in male attire, and, to test the king, asked him to tell which were which. The wise one ordered water to be brought, and then quickly picked them out, greatly to the astonishment of the queen; but the children had betrayed themselves, as the boys only washed their wrists, while the girls washed to their elbows. Furthermore, there are three hundred and sixty-five spots in a complete deck of cards, corresponding to the days of the year, fifty-two to a pack corresponding to the weeks. Twelve picture cards, one for each month. Four suits, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Diamonds represent wealth, Hearts love, Spades health and labor, and Clubs power.”

In the British Museum is a pack of grammatical cards printed by Jane, June 1, 1676. A small treatise of instruction that went with the cards begins as follows: “To all ingenious gentlemen the Purchasers of these Sciential cards. It was Plato’s custom, after he had ended his disputation, as he went forth from his school, to give this admonition to his scholars, ‘Videte ut ocium in re quapiam honesta collocetis,’ or, ‘Nothing is more irksome to nature than not to know how to spend one’s time,’ and if the mind have not some relaxation from its grave and Serious Employment it cannot endure. I should have been very injurious to you if I should have Obscured this Grammatical Epitome and Deprived you of that which will make much both for your Leisure and Profit.”

There is another pack in the same collection with “a short tract” teaching their use, saying: “For as your cards are entitled Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs, so ours are to be called by the names of Orthographie (Spades), Etymologie (Clubs), Syntax (Hearts), and Prosodie (Diamonds).” By such gentle paths were men lured from vice to literature!

Astronomical cards were early adopted in Nuremburg, as was natural, for one of the most celebrated astronomers lived in that town, and the Tarots certainly lent themselves more easily to conceptions based on astronomy than to any other science, since so many of the Atouts have derivations from the planets. There are also French cards that are dated 1620, and Italian ones of about fifty years earlier, all of them being on the same subject.

Many of the Atouts in the Tarots are connected with the signs of the Zodiac, but the emblems on them are not clearly displayed, so inferences from them are mere guesswork.

The astronomical cards of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, showing the signs of the Zodiac, are clearly inspired by the Tarots, but the designs are supplemented by figures that show no connection with the Book of Thoth.

An English pack, dated 1700, called Virtues and Vices, has the former so repulsively and the latter so attractively displayed that they can serve no good purpose.

Historical cards are interesting to students of costume. In the United States one pack commemorates the war of 1848 with Mexico, and the Kings represent the generals of the day. On the Aces are views of well-known country places, One is of the headquarters of General Washington at Newburgh; another is Highwood, on the Hudson River at Wiehawken, opposite Forty-second Street, New York, the residence of Mr. James Gore King.

A pack of cards of 1863 represents the battle between the “Monitor” and the “Merrimac,” and the court cards are soldiers in the uniforms of the day, such as zouaves, etc.

A pack in the British Museum displays small and very indecent pictures with descriptive legends. Some of the latter are amusing, such as, “Hee that has no Head wants noe Hatt.” Under the picture of a bachelor maid is:

I know well how the world waggs,
He’s most beloved that has most Baggs.

Under the sketch of an old woman with her pet is written: “Two heads are better than one, which made the old woman carry her dog to Market with her,” and its mate has: “Men and Doggs may goe abroad, but Women and Catts must stay at home.” Another reads: “Two Doggs and a Bone, Two Catts and a Mouse, Two Wives in a House can never Agree.”

The picture of three doctors entering a room with their sticks to their noses and approaching a sick man bears the legend:

If you’ll avoid old Charon, the Ferryman,
Consult Dr. Dyett, Dr. Quiett, and Dr. Merryman.

The following card has on it: “An Ounce of Mirth is worth a Pound of Sorrow.”


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved