The Lister List

Playing Cards

Origami Playing Cards

In a message dated 29/03/01 Doug Phillips wrote:

<< It just occurred to me wonder if the Europeans have a different shape of playing cards than the USA, or in spite of our differences in office/copy paper the card decks are actually similar. Also with other countries and cultures. I've seen square card decks as well as round ones.>>

There is much more to this question than Doug (or for that matter, most Americans or Britons) would ever imagine.

There is a great variety of cards throughout the world. Chinese playing cards and those from other parts of the Far East , such as Thailand are little more than strips or tickets of paper, some longer and some shorter. China has many different kinds of playing cards. The older designs are based on coins (cash), but others are based on dominoes and Mah Jong. (You can often buy several kinds of Chinese cards in Chinese shops in the West.) There are also many patterns of Japanese cards which are small black rectangular card tablets. Sadly, they are in decline., but Japanese "Flower Cards" are well-known. In contrast Indian playing card are circular and hand-painted, usually with many suits and sometimes as many as 144 or more cards in a pack.

But even in Europe, there are many kinds of playing cards. They are divided into two broad categories: Standard Playing Cards and Non-standard cards. The Standard Cards are the ones people actually use for playing games. The Non-standard cards are packs or decks issued to commemorate a particular event or as souvenirs of a tourist country or collections of pictures of film stars or politicians or just pretty girls. If an origami pack were to be issued it would be a non-standard pack. Usually such packs are the size and shape of ordinary cards, but they can be long and narrow or short and wide or

some other shape, such as circular. I have a small collection of cards of eccentric shapes, including barrel-shaped cards, square cards and some shaped like bowing skittles! The most eccentric are zigzag-shaped cards _ don't ask me to play with them! There are also tiny cards the size of a finger nail and also giant cards two or more feet high. Don't ask me to play with them!

It is the Standard Cards that are really interesting, for they gradually change their designs with the passage of time as the patterns are copied and reissued by successive designers and publishers. The evolution of the patterns of standard cards resembles, very closely, the evolution of folk songs.

The standard pattern of playing cards in Britain and America is known as the "English Pattern" and derives ultimately for a regional pattern which was used in Rouen in France dating from the 16th century. In the earliest packs of these packs, the court cards are recognisable as human beings, but they gradually become more and more stylised and distorted. Then in the 19th Century, double-headed cards became popular, so the court cards lost their legs and turned into the curious heraldic-like figures we know today. But if you collect different examples of packs from different manufacturers, you

will come to realise how much the actual patterns can differ.

But this is only the English pattern. True, that with the spread of the popularity of the games of Poker and Bridge, the English/American pattern has become popular throughout the word. But it has not yet displaced other national and regional patterns. The current French pack (known as the modern Paris Pattern) is derived from a relative of the source as the English pattern, but the court cards are quite different and are much more naturalistic. The French Courts also have names. Before the French Revolution, each province of France had its own pattern of cards (it helped the customs officials at a time when there were customs barriers within France itself). There are still several very different patterns in use around France.

The English and French Cards use the familiar suit marks of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. The same symbols are used in many other parts of Europe for patterns derived from the French ones. But there are also quite different sets of suit marks in many parts of Europe. For instance, in Spain they are cups, coins, swords and clubs (Literally wooden clubs as used by amorous cavemen!) Some south Italian cards have similar suits, but others in northern Italy have cups, coins, batons and long scimitar-like swords. Many people are

familiar with Tarot cards, some of which use Italian suits and others French. Incidentally, did you now that among the French suit signs, the design of the spade symbol is derived from the Spanish swords, which thy call espada?

In Germany the suit marks are hearts, bell, leaves and acorns. In Switzerland they are shields, acorns, hawk-bells and flowers. The Swiss call these cards "Jasskarten". But both Germany and Switzerland also have French-suited packs.

Most of these countries have regional variants of cards, which are used for playing local card games. No local player would dream of using the English/American cards for this purpose. But each country may have several different packs for different regions or different games. Italy has some twelve or more kinds still in use. Germany, Austria and Bohemia also have many different patterns, some with German suits and some with French suits. Russia used a variant of a French pattern. An interesting diversion when visiting Europe is to try to collect as many regional patterns of playing cards as possible. They are usually to be bought from tobacconists' shops.

All these cards have very different court cards, although designs of court cards can often be followed from pattern to pattern across Europe. The German-suited packs, (which are the most beautiful of all playing cards) don't have Kings, Queens and Jacks as the French and English do, but Kings, Ober-Knaben and Unter-Knaben. ("Knabe is the same as the English "Knave", still sometimes used for the Jack.) Tarot packs have four court cards to each suit: King, Queen, Cavalier (on a horse) and Servant or Knave. the also have twenty-two special cards known as trump (or "triumph") cards. They date from the time before players had the idea of using one of the ordinary suits as


But to get back to Doug's basic question in which he asks whether the

Europeans have a different shape of playing cards from the USA: the answer is, No, if they are playing bridge or some other international games. The answer is: Yes when applied to their own playing cards: which are usually very different.

Between Britain and America, there is little difference. United States cards have sometimes tended to be slightly wider on average than British ones, but this is not a universal rule. some American cards are narrow and some British ones are wide. An expert can immediately tell not only in which country the cards were made, but also who was the manufacturer and when the cards were printed. The English Paying-card society specialises in the study society

exists which specialises solely in British and American standard cards. However, the main organisation for the study all aspects of playing cards of every kind is the International Playing-card Society.

Jokers are interesting: they are often thought to be derived from the Fool in of the Tarot packs, but in fact, the Joker did not derive from the Fool, but was introduced by players in America in the 19th century.

I should like to see an Origami Pack, but quite understand the difficulties of publishing one. I suggest it should have 52 suit cards, two jokers (as is usual today), a "Title Card" and another shortly explaining Origami. Perhaps there could be another giving the main basic creases. It would make a nice addition to my collection.

One or two further comments on this theme.

Thoki Yenn asks what games you would play with the oriental cards I have mentioned. I honestly don't know. There were many kinds of oriental packs. The expert on Indian cards was the Austrian, Rudolf von Leyden and, by a curious coincidence he always makes me think of Thoki Yenn: probably because he had a beard and looked fierce! I have quickly glanced at two of his books and he doesn't appear to mention any actual Indian games. (It is rare for students of playing cards actually to play cards! But it's their loss, because the games played throw much light on the development of the cards.) There are

many different packs of Indian cards and it is likely that widely different games were played with different packs. But I doubt if they were Snap or Bezique!

There has been some discussion of the shape of any Origami Pack. To my mind it should obviously be square. Just a few square packs exist, but they are most uncommon. A square origami pack would be distinctive and most appropriate.

Doug Philips would love a triangular pack. Well, they do exist. I happen to have a triangular pack, but, again they are extremely rare. I have never tried playing with either square or triangular cards and I imagine that they wouldn't be very easy to handle, any more than would circular cards. But, as I have pointed out, people don't actually PLAY with non-standard cards. Nevertheless, non-standard cards do stick to the tradition that the backs of all the cards are the same in each pack. Of course, for actual play, cards must be unidentifiable from their backs.

There is no reason why the suits of the Origami Deck should not be based on (say) the classic bases. But rather than just depict the linear pattern of the base, I would suggest suit signs of a Flapping Bird, a Fish, a Frog and either a Windmill or a Pajarita.

I do like the suggestion that the joker (or one of the jokers) should be Jeremy Shafer on his flaming bicycle. Any suggestions for a second joker? All that remains to done is to select by one means or another, 52 origami models for the suit cards. My own preference would be for photographs of famous origami models from the Senbazuru Orikata, through the Kan no mado, Unamuno and Yoshizawa to Robert Lang's infamous Cuckoo Clock. The models would mostly select themselves.

I've decided that I must buy two packs: one for my origami collection and one for my Playing Card Collection.

David Lister

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