Sunday, 19 May 2013

Mardon Son & Hall Playing Cards 

The Wills Tobacco Promotion of 1933

Tobacco companies have been issuing insert cards since 1875 and collecting cigarette cards is a popular hobby. Some companies have issued cigarette cards that look like miniature playing cards or with playing card indices on them, several depicting 'beauties of the day'. But in 1933 WD & HO Wills, one of the founding companies of Imperial Tobacco, came up with a special promotion.

A full size joker with a sample of the miniatures
 The insert cards were indeed miniature playing cards, but when a full set was collected this could be exchanged for 'proper' playing cards. Two miniature cards were inserted into cigarette packs. They were one quarter the size of a standard narrow playing card. There were minor variations to faces and backs and the last ones had the closing date overprinted.

It was a hugely successful promotion offering patience or bridge size and single or double or bezique sets. The little red  booklets are always dated 1933. Originally the cards were produced by Goodall (owned by De La Rue) and Waddington, but Mardon Son & Hall a Bristol printing and packaging company making boxes for Wills began making the playing cards specifically for this promotion.

Mardon Son & Hall with anonymous Ace, the Spade courts and a joker. 2 or 4 indices

The success of the promotion can be gauged by the number of decks which turn up all the time and surprisingly many have never been opened. It is not unusual to find them in the original posting box. Playing cards at that time (and until August 1960) were subject to a duty of 3d per pack and always sealed inside a blue tax wrapper. The name of the manufacturer is often found on the side panel, but not always, and the easily recognized Mardon boxes which are as fussy as their Ace of Spades design do not carry any manufacturer information. The Mardon designs were usually issued in pairs, some of the frequently seen (bridge size) examples are illustrated below. Although these cards seem to be fairly common (I have just bought two decks sealed in their tax wrappers on ebay for a few pounds each) I suspect they will become more scarce as they were only produced for a very limited period.

A Mardon box and duty sealed deck of cards with the rare inscription on the duty wrapper. Incidentally 'Linen finish' simply refers to a paper finishing looking slightly like material, the cards are made of layers of paper.


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Indices on Playing Cards


Have there always been numbers on playing cards?

Triplicate or Squeezer?

The short answer is No. Originally there were no numbers on playing cards to indicate the value of the card. Suit symbols were very large and the pattern of pips soon becomes easily recognisable. But if you hold a hand of old playing cards without corner numbers you would soon see the problem. It's hard to hide your cards when you need to see almost the whole card to determine its value.

Cheating by glancing at your oppponent's hand was too easy. Nowadays we are used to fanning the cards very tightly with just the corner index showing. The card back I have illustrated on the left was designed to illustrate a rather bitter struggle in the 1870s with regard to solving this problem. The lower dog has a collar which reads 'Squeezer' and the other dog's collar reads 'Trip', his kennel is marked 'Registered 1877'. The dispute involves two American Companies. The New York Consolidated Card Company had invented the corner number idea and patented it. The cards could be 'squeezed' in the hand, ie tightly fanned and were sold as 'Squeezers', the name appearing on the Ace and boxes well into the 20th century.

Early index styles: a)Triplicate  b)Within-pip  c) Squeezer style

A rival company Andrew Dougherty had designed cards with miniature playing cards in the corner, the image thus appearing three times, once as the card and in two little cards on opposite corners. These were marketed as 'Triplicate cards'. A court case ensued and the two companies eventually came to an agreement by dividing up the country for their respective sales. The illustrated back (by NYCC) marks that agreement in 1877 with each dog chained to its 'home territory' - There is a tie that binds us to our homes. The three cards illustated above show also a very rare example of the numeral within the pip, a style that was used in England for a short time by De La Rue.

Cards without indices: a) c1805  b) c1870  c) c1875

The three cards illustrated on the right are examples of 19th century playing cards with square cut corners and no indices. Just one significant change has taken place during the 19thC and that is the double ending of the design, easily seen on court cards which used to be single standing figures, and in the 1875 example shown, pips have become double ended on English cards before indices are added. Double ended English court cards with one way pips generally date roughly from before 1875 - total accuracy on dating by this means is not possible as there are variations.

From the 1880s onwards cards generally have rounded corners and corner indices which start off quite small and become larger so that by the beginning of the 20th century the index is similar to today's style. But just because a card does not have indices does not mean it is 19th century as they were produced well into the 20th century for games like baccarat. There are many quite good facsimile decks with standing courts and no indices looking like early 19th century decks. You must use other clues like printing method and paper quality to distinguish between old and old-looking.
We take for granted the modern corner indices, but it wasn't always like this.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Mid 18thC plate with playing cards

Playing cards on a plate

18th century defltware London

Playing cards have been used to decorate every kind of object imaginable. This is an early example and a good reference for the style of playing cards of the time. Dating from the middle of the 18th century circa 1750 the cards are typical of the time. The court cards are single ended (standing courts), the pips are also single ended all pointing the same way, there are no indices and the cards are square cornered. All those things were to change by the late 19th century.

Probably made and decorated in London this plate is made of tin glazed earthenware, called delftware in England and Holland. The tin glaze gave the white appearance imitating porcelain which was very expensive and not yet mastered in England at that time. It is usually called faience in France and maiolica or majolica in Italy and Spain. Being much softer and quite different from porcelain it is typified in antique ceramics by the extensive chipping to the edges which reveals the fired clay colour and granular texture. This plate is in Bristol City Museum which has a very fine collection of porcelain.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The most famous poker hand?

Aces and eights

American cards of c.1870 as used in the Wild West, these are
by Samuel Hart of New York. Note the typically fancy Ace of
Spades and that there are no numbers on the cards.
 On August 2nd 1876 in Deadwood's Saloon No 10 Dakota Territory, a drifter by the name of Jack McCall drew an old colt .45 and walked up behind James Butler Hickok who was seated at a card table engaged in a hand of poker. A shot rang out and Hickok slumped on the table, dead . 'Wild Bill Hickok' the legendary gunfighter had drawn his last hand, and what was in that poker hand has become as much of a legend as the exploits of the man himself. There is no first hand evidence as to what the cards really were, but it was not long before the famous 'aces and eights' combination was recorded as the fatal hand.

An alternative version of the hand
 A pair of aces and a pair of eights is not a particularly high hand in poker and while this may well have been Hickok's hand there is more of a mystery as to what the fifth card, or kicker, may have been. One legend has the Queen of Clubs as shown above, while the Adams Museum in Deadwood proposes the hand shown on the right with different Aces and Eights and the Queen of Hearts as the kicker. Other people say other cards and one version is that Hickok had discarded and not yet drawn the fifth card. Who knows? That's the stuff of legend. The term Dead Man's Hand usually also refers to this particular two-pair combination.

Poker is the most widely played card game. Its origins can be traced back to the early 19th century in various embryonic forms. Documentary evidence from memoirs and other non-fictional writing show that it was being played in the early 1830s. It seems that it was first played with a 20 card deck, not using the 2-9 inclusive, and later developed into a 52 card game to give more variety for betting hands and for more people to play at the same time. But of course poker is not really a card game at all - it is a psychological game, the cards are almost incidental to the play. Not however when cards are shown face up because then the calculation of odds can come more into play with the pyschology. There are literally dozens of poker variations but they are all nerve-jangling games full of excitement, adrenalin and sweaty palms, alternatively a sharp mind, cool brow and clever strategy.

A last point about the cards shown, you may notice that the two queens have the suit mark on different sides of the card. I'll write a blog in the future to explain why some of the courts were redrawn and 'turned' with all suit marks on the left of the head like the Queen of Hearts above, it's linked with the introduction of corner numbers (indices) and keeping the hand closely squeezed to prevent other players seeing or guessing your cards.

The cards shown are from my own collection and the pictures are copyright. A wide range of playing cards
 can be found for purchase on my website

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Clubs Diamonds Hearts and Spades

Where did these suits come from?

The English, French, American suit system with a King

The short answer is that nobody knows - but read on bearing in mind I'm offering thoughts not definitive answers. Like a lot of things to do with playing cards there is a great deal of speculation and not a lot of facts. However, these were certainly not the first suit signs on European cards. I'm not going into the history of playing cards in this blog, this is just about some different suit systems but I will say that it is possible that the notion of four suits came from four sided chess games, as chess type games seem to be older than playing cards. In Europe we can be sure that cards had appeared by the latter part of the 14th century from indisputable documentary evidence. There are stylistic links with playing cards from further towards the East, India and Persia in particular (but not China) but the origins and arrival of playing cards in Europe is pure speculation. Suffice it to say that prior to the Italian four suited cards there do not appear to be any others like them anywhere in the world. And lastly, there are many regional variations to styles and arrangements on playing cards, so there are many exceptions to the general points below.

Italy has the first suit system in Europe

The Italian suits shown her with one court card are coins, cups, swords and batons. These were the first suits to appear on European cards. One can guess that they might have their origins in representing four sectors of society, coins for the merchant class, cups for the church, swords for the military and batons perhaps for the legislature thinking of the old Roman fasces the bundle of magistrates rods. However, these suits have most probably given us our SPADES from the Italian for swords spade and also CLUBS from the Italian bastoni for batons.

Spain is similar

The Spanish suits of today are exactly the same as the Italian suits but they are arranged differently on the cards and the batons have become knobbly wooden CLUBS. The swords and batons are not interlinked as on the Italian cards. Also the frame on the Spanish cards identifies the suit, there are either no breaks, one, two or three. Spanish cards generally still have single ended (or standing) court cards, double ending the design as seen on the English French and Italian examples here was a 19th century development.

Germany is very different

Playing cards from the region now called Germany and beyond are fascinating for their regional variations. The diversity is a study in itself. But they all have the same suit system and it is quite unique. Acorns, HEARTS, hawkbells and leaves. We now have the origin for three of our Anglo-American suits. Modern German regional patterns are either single ended like the one shown or double ended. Incidentally you will notice that some cards shown in this blog are numbered and some are not. These numbers are called indexes or indices and are also a late 19thC development - the subject of another blog to come.

A Swiss variation

The Swiss suit system has similarities with the German system in acorns and hawkbells, but has two new suits of shields and flowers. The German system is found throughout the old Austo-Hungarian region of Europe.

France is the last link

The suit system that we have of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades most certainly came to England from France which, like Germany, had many regional variations although most of these have died out. How the French settled on these suits, well ... who knows, but the diamond suit carreaux in France, paving slabs, is the one suit not before seen in Europe. Another peculiarity of the French cards is that they named all the court cards with names of characters. And incidentally not every suit system has a King Queen and Jack, far from it, many do not have a Queen - another blog for the future.

So the English suit system is a total mixture
Chinese chess cards for 2 and 4 handed games

I haven't presented anything new here, I've only scratched the surface and I'm sure there are people doing academic research into these things. There is already a fair amount of literature, but I say again, very few facts - part of the fascination of playing cards.

To finish this blog I'm adding three more pictures, one showing Chinese cards from a two and four handed chess pack; one showing Chinese playing cards with money suits; and playing cards from India, mainly to show that the relationship to

Chinese playing cards

 European cards is virtually non-existent to dispel the myth that playing cards came to Europe from the Far East. The connection with Indian cards is stronger in that each suit in the ganjifa set shown below has two 'court cards, a mir and a vizier, but that is about as far as it goes.

A final word for thought is this, the popularity of the Anglo-American style of card came about with the spread of games like Bridge and Poker from the late 19th century.

Indian ganjifa cards showing the 8 suits and one mir

But prior to that, cards with the different suit systems shown above can be found all round the world mainly as a result of trade and the huge popularity of card playing from the late medieval period onwards. The influence of some countries can still be seen in the types of card which are commonly used today.

To see many more styles of card visit my website
All the illustrations are from my stock or collection and copyright.