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Collecting

I collect playing-cards; where should I look to buy them?

Ordinary sources are stationery shops, but these will normally be standard (though one can be pleasantly surprised sometimes when an unusual deck is found there). The various societies carry announcements of available decks and advertisements by dealers. The CPCC offers a service to its members by purchasing decks not easily available, and placing them on sale at reasonable prices. In addition, there are card auctions offering historical and unusual decks (as well as individual cards for those who collect specific subjects); once it is known you are a collector, the dealers will either send you auction catalogs or send you an order form to purchase them. If you travel, souvenir cards are available at novelty shops, and many tobacconists and airport kiosks have them also. A very good source is other collectors, who may wish to trade their duplicates or unwanted material; much of this is done at club meetings.

These days there is always eBay with its attendant pros and cons which apply to any online auction.

Some dealers to get you started can be found in the member’s home pages. Note that we are not necessarily advocating their services; they advertise in the specialised journals read by collectors.

How do I store my collection of playing-cards?

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How do I display my collection of playing-cards?

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How do I date a pack?

Well, there’s carbon dating, but this is somewhat destructive and expensive for the average pack which comes the way of a collector :->. Failing that there are a number of indications which could be helpful.

Appearance

The first is obviously appearance—tempered with some words of caution from Sylvia Mann (from “collecting Playing Cards”):

“The problem of dating cards is always a headache for the collector, paricularly as one must inevitably rely on one’s own knowledge and judgement. As regards Italy, the problem is complicated by the fact that, of all card-players throughout the world, the Italians are by far the most violent, and a pack of modern cards can have an almost antique appearance at the end of a short train journey.”

Remember also, that certain designs returned into fashion many years after being originally issued and were therefore re-issued as facsimiles. Plus, instances of deliberate faking are not unknown.

Suit system in use

The first European suit systems were Italian and Spanish. Local manufacturers in the late 14th and early 15th century invented suits and courtly figures at whim. Not until the latter part of the 15th century did standardized versions of the major national packs start to emerge from the designers’ anarchy. Nearly all the suitmarks of traditional Swiss and German packs appear individually before 1450 and in complete systems perhaps by 1475. Spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds first appeared in France about 1480. No one knows when cards first reached England; Chaucer (1343-1400) makes no mention of them despite his interest in games and his (and others’) familiarity with France and matters French. Cards were mentioned in one of the Paston letters. No unquestionably English games is mentioned before the 1520s, and the oldest surviving English cards date from 1590 hence the earliest English cards bore the Latin suitmark of swords, clubs, cups and coins.

Manufacturer’s marks

Playing-card makers usually stamped their work with their name or a trademark, thus looking up the maker in one of the references (see the bibliography) gives a possible range of dates. The names, addresses and trademarks of the companies tended to change over time, e.g. the English maker Hall was active between 1802 and 1806; thereafter the cards were stamped “Hall & Son”.

Edges on Italian cards

Italian cards were originally made with the back folded over and stuck down to form a border on the face of the card to protect its edges (cards were always made by pasting several layers of paper together, and tended to fall apart with use). This practice was also taken up by Spanish-suited cards; it persisted longer in some parts of Italy than in others. The last Italian pack to be issued with turnover edges was published in 1957; prior to that the practice had ceased c.1930.

Corners

Rounded corners (unless rounded by enthusiastic use) were not known before c.1875.

Single- or double-ended?

Early cards were single-ended. Double-ended cards originated in the later 18th century, and spread slowly from one standard pattern to another, rather than from country to country; some standard patterns, such as the Neapolitan and Sicilian, have not adopted it yet. Amongst the earliest pack to go double-headed was the Tarocco Bolognese; and, although single-ended French-suited Tarot packs were produced up to about 1840, double-headed ones appeared as early as 1780. The earliest double-headed French-suited regular pack was produced in Austria in the late 18th century, and, among Italian-suited packs, those using the Venetian pattern assumed a double-headed form at about the same time. The Paris pattern, used throughout france, became double-headed in 1827, and by 1830 double-headed cards were more common than single-ended ones in most European countries. Britain and the USA lagged behind other Western countries in this matter: double-headed cards first appeared in England soon after 1850, and became established only in the 1860s; in the United States the earliest example is from 1861, but the form took root only in the 1870s. (source is Michael Dummett’s “The Game of Tarot”)

Backs

In England and the USA decorated card backs were a mid 19th century phenomenon, having previously been plain. In other countries patterned backs have been in use for far longer.

Printing processes

Apart from the early non-standard engraved cards which were black and white and had illustrations on each card, most playing-cards until the mid 19th century were made from wood-blocks and were hand-coloured by stencil. Some countries, however, continued to use this printing method until the 20th century. By and large, though, playing-card makers adopted new printing methods shortly after they were introduced, included lithography, photolithography, photogravure, etc.

The standard work in Britain to help identify a printing process from its appearance is How to Identify Prints by Bamber Gascoigne (ISBN 0-500-23454-X, 1986, hardback and still in print, also in paperback, ISBN 0-500-28480-6, April 2004).

Indexes

From about the mid 19th century many (not all) cards make their values clearly distinguishable if held in the `fan’ position by index letters and numerals at the corners. They are an American invention from shortly before 1870. They were adopted in most European countries in the 1890s, though Austria and Italy have been resistant.

Jokers

The `Best Bower’ was invented for use in the game of Euchre in which two of the Jacks are named Right and Left Bower; this happened during the 1860s in the USA. `Bower’ is a corruption of the German word `Bauer’ used in Alsace, from where Euchre or Juker originated as the ordinary word for `Jack’. This card evolved into the Joker during the 1870s. The Joker arrived in Europe in the 1880s along with the game of Poker. It was gradually incorporated into French-suited packs with 52 cards.

See more on the joker page.

Tax stamps

Remember that tax stamps on cards have an area of inaccuracy ranging between zero and 50 years or more since old stocks of cards may not have been released for many years; the blocks may be reused time and again, or even sold to another maker. For example, a Trappola pack made in Stralsund c.1885 reappeared 1936-9 with an Altenburg tax stamp of the Nazi period.

There is much information regarding tax stamps spread among many sources. See the tax stamps page, a guide to information sources compiled by Peter Endebrock.

Finally, more words from Sylvia Mann (from “Collecting Playing Cards”):

“Identification of cards can only be a matter of perseverance and practice.”

How do I find out the value of a pack?

In the same way that you would value any other item; a thing is worth what someone will pay for it. First you have to clearly identify the pack. A rare item will command a higher price than one which is common. A complete pack will command a higher price than one which has cards missing. A pack with all cards in good condition will command a higher price than one which has been much played with and is worn or which has been defaced or torn. Packs which are inherently `pretty’ (such as transformation decks, or packs with beautiful designs executed in many colours and gilding) will command a higher price than those which are visually unremarkable. Packs produced in rare circumstances are also more valuable (such as those produced during the fervour of the French Revolution when card-makers hacked away the crowns of the court cards on their wood-blocks).

Those who earn a living from dealing in cards professionally are well-versed in all aspects of playing-card history and often have an encyclopedic knowledge of makers and tax stamps and other pointers to a pack’s age. They will also be aware of a pack’s relative scarcity. They will attend the major (and minor) auctions where playing-cards are sold and will make notes on the value they realise. They will buy packs which they can sell for a profit and have a clear idea of a figure they will be able to realise on their sale. Anyone willing to apply the necessary time and energy to these matters will eventually accumulate the necessary knowledge to be able to value cards. If you don’t have the time yourself, then it may be worth your while to pay a professional to value the items for you.

Another good way to see what other people are being offered for their cards is to check out the online playing-card auctions on eBay.

Another approach is to take a few of your packs along to your local society meeting. There are likely to be experts present (amateur or professional) who would be willing to offer an opinion. If your packs are rare then you also offer fellow collectors a chance to view cards that they may otherwise never see.

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