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Playing card and game collection

Call Number

PR 115


1549-present (bulk, 1800-1899), inclusive



16 Linear feet (17 boxes)

Language of Materials

This collection is primarily visual. Any text is likely to be in English, French, German, and other European languages.


The collection includes American and European playing cards and card games, primarily from the 19th century. Includes one of the oldest dated cards in existence.

Historical Note

The origin of the playing card is difficult to pin down to a specific time or place. Playing cards are known to have existed in China before 1000, and probably spread west through trade routes. Playing cards were found in the Middle East by the 13th century, and in Southern Europe by 1350. Cards moved north from France into England by 1459. Playing cards were initially hand-painted, which contributed to their use among the noble classes of Europe. With the development of the woodblock method of printing, ca. 1380, mass production of cards was possible, and card playing became a widespread leisure activity. As printing processes developed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cards were printed in greater detail, in color, and more inexpensively.

Suits found on Islamic cards were cups, coins, swords, and sticks. These were reinvented in various ways by different countries and cultures throughout Europe. The Spanish suits are similar: cups, coins, swords, and clubs. Italians used the same suits, but feature the king seated. The suit signs in common usage today are the French system: hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades (hearts, trefoils, squares, and spearheads to the French). Hearts, acorns, bells, and leaves are German suit signs. Swiss suits are acorns, shields, bells, and roses. This collection contains examples of all of these suit variations. Each nationality has developed differing ways of rendering the court cards.

The earliest known playing card with a date written on it is from 1546. This card is part of a deck in this collection. French cards from before the Revolution in 1789 show full-card depictions of Kings, Queens, and Jacks. When the Monarchy fell, kings and queens were no longer popular, and the figures were de-crowned and became representative of democratic ideas like liberty and equality. The monarchs were re-installed on cards at the time of Napoleon's reign. There are many examples of pre-Revolutionary French cards in this collection.

The nineteenth century was a time for much standardization, and at the same time, experimentation on the part of card manufactures. American card manufacturing began in the early 1800s; previously, decks had been imported from England and taxed. Transformation cards, where the suit signs are incorporated into comic or sentimental pictures, began to be printed at the beginning of the 19th century. Corner indices, or the practice of putting the suit sign and number in the corner of the card, took off in the second half of the nineteenth century. After 1860, most cards began to be standardized with numbers. The Joker card first appeared in American decks of euchre around 1865. Most playing cards had plain backs until the 19th century, when designs were added. Advertising material began to appear on card backs in late 19th century, first in Belgium. Souvenir packs with different photographic views on each card were introduced in the 1890s.

"Standard" decks are considered to be those able to be used by the average card player. This most often results in 52 cards (13 each of 4 suits) and 2 joker cards. "Non-standard" decks are often used to play specific games. Bezique, a game in the collection, has 64 cards. Other non-standard cards are used for educational purposes and for games of memory and chance. Transformation cards are also considered non-standard.

Cards have often been used for fortune telling. Many are identified as "Le Normand Style" after a deck named for Napoleon's personal fortune teller. These cards contain a small image of a playing card in the upper center of each card, with a number above. The remainder of the card has a fortune image. Tarot was a game invented in Italy, although tarot cards are today used for fortune telling. Political messages are often found on card decks. In many cases, both in Europe and America, political card decks were issued close on the heels of the depicted event.

Games played with playing cards make up a significant part of this collection. The small size and portability of playing cards made them useful to game designers. Often a small folding board would be included with the deck of game cards. Dissected puzzles, or metamorphosis games, were popular. In these games, different cards are components of a whole picture (heads, torso, and legs, for example) and were to be interchanged or else matched to their corresponding parts. The rebus, or picture puzzle, was another popular game printed on playing cards. These cards would show a picture, and sometimes a written clue, and the game was to guess the answer. Rebus cards have been produced since 1789.

Playing card wrappers are also notable ephemera because cards were one of the early products sold in packaging. Decks of cards were thus one of the first pre-packaged manufactured items. Early cards decks were packaged in paper wrappers held together with a piece of thread. Cardboard slipcases were in use by 1800, boxes with push on lids by 1828, and telescope and tuck-flap boxes were introduced in the late 19th century. Cellophane wrappers were common by 1937. Original containers have been retained with the card decks in this collection, and are sometimes boxed separately.


The Playing Card Collection is organized in five series based on country of origin:

Series I. American Playing Cards (1824-1983)
Series II. British Playing Cards ([1675-1887])
Series III. German and Austrian Playing Cards (1549-1884)
Series IV. French Playing Cards ([1668-1901])
Series V. Other Playing Cards (1699-2000)

Scope and Contents

The Playing Card and Game Collection spans the period from 1546 to the present, and contains over 200 decks of playing and educational cards, as well as playing card-based board games and other game materials. The collection is divided into five series: American Playing Cards; British Playing Cards; German and Austrian Playing Cards; French Playing Cards; and Other Playing Cards. Decks are organized by date within these series.

Printing formats represented in the collection include: woodcut, engraving, lithography, chromolithography, and photomechanical printing. The cards in this collection represent several types of decks: standard, political, educational, transformation (in which the suit marks are incorporated into an unrelated design) and translucent (which reveal hidden scenes when held to the light.) Fortune-telling and tarot cards appear in the collection, as do metamorphosis cards and games.

The cards cover a wide range of American and European styles. 149 card decks are of European origin and 60 are American. Many European cards are multilingual. Eleven board games meant to be used with playing cards are included in the collection. A device for keeping score and counting the number of games played is also in the collection.

In 1983, game designer and collector David Greenwald (now Galt) was hired by the New-York Historical Society to catalog the Society's collection of cards and card games. Much of the information about each deck comes from his work, which resulted in individual catalog sheets for each card deck and an exhibition at the Society. When the collection was processed and re-housed in 2000, the cards were organized into series based on country of origin, and numbered by date within each series. Mr. Galt's meticulous research as to the suit signs and numbers of cards of each deck can be viewed in the collection database.

Access Restrictions

Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit

Use Restrictions

Taking images of documents from the library collections for reference purposes by using hand-held cameras and in accordance with the library's photography guidelines is encouraged. As an alternative, patrons may request up to 20 images per day from staff.

Application to use images from this collection for publication should be made in writing to: Department of Rights and Reproductions, The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194, Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282.

Copyrights and other proprietary rights may subsist in individuals and entities other than the New-York Historical Society, in which case the patron is responsible for securing permission from those parties. For fuller information about rights and reproductions from N-YHS visit:

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as Playing Card and Game Collection, PR 115, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.

Location of Materials

Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The majority of the collection was acquired in 1937 as part of the Elie Nadelman Folk Art Collection. However, no clear records exist as to which decks were part of that accession. The collection also contains materials from other donors and from purchases.

Related Materials

Playing cards can also be found in the Bella C. Landauer Collection of Advertising and Business Ephemera (PR 031).


  1. Galt, David. "The Romance of American Playing Cards," New England Antiques Journal,Vol. XVII, No. 8, February 1999.
  2. Greenwald, David. "In One Era and Out the Other," Games,Jan/Feb 1981, p. 14.

Collection processed by

Jason Burns

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-21 15:47:56 -0400.
Language: Description is in English.

Edition of this Guide

This version was derived from cards.xml


New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024