Malcolm M. Ferguson
There are two main reasons for playing cards as stamp subjects. One is the occasion of a tournament, such as the World Bridge Championship in Bermuda in 1975 (Sc.# 312-15) , or the Netherlands 6th Bridge Olympiad in 1980 (Sc. 601).
The other reason reflects on the history of playing cards, surely of sufficient cultural significance to warrant the relatively small number of stamps featuring them.
Over the last five hundred years the standard pack of 52 cards, of spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds has emerged. The deck has as many cards as there are weeks in a year, with the same number of suits as there are seasons.
Playing cards are of Oriental origin. They appeared in Germany as early as 1377. They were made increasingly popular in Europe 500 years ago by gypsies. These card decks included emblematic tarot cards useful in fortune telling as well as for card games.
Nowadays it is believed that cards are flat, shuffleable versions of other games such as dice, chess or mah-jongg. They trace back beyond India where the gypsies originated, to China. Early tarot cards consisted of 77 cards plus one card designated “the Fool”, predecessor of our joker.
Many of the emblematic cards had mystical values rich with ambiguous fortune telling possibilities. Since a fortune teller must be a good psychologist, these cards served a useful purpose in reaching the subject who seeks to learn of his or her fortune.
These cards had been handmade, but began to be printed in Europe from block prints around the time that Gutenberg invented the moveable type in the 1440’s.
Czechoslovakia issued a set of stamps showing these earlier cards before today’s conventional pack had been established (Scott #2520-24) . East Germany also issued a set (Scott 941-44) which is also historic, but to a more limited degree.
Today’s face cards must conform to convention. The features of the knaves or jacks of spades and hearts are in profile, hence “one-eyed jacks”. The king of diamonds is also in profile. All queens hold stylized flowers. Several people have undertaken to design playing cards within these conventions but with more individualistic features than the present bland ones.
French graphic artist Edmund Dulac, in addition to designing excellent stamps for Great Britain, France and French Colonies around 1940 designed such an individualistic deck of cards, but it only had limited distribution.
Curiously, Monaco’s card-playing Monte Carlo has not received philatelic acknowledgment. Monaco’s significant interests in oceanography, in auto and bicycle racing and in an airplane rally are featured, but presumably because of the element of gambling, the ever-popular card playing has not.
But whether pictured or not, playing cards hold a fascination combining the mysteries of mathematical probabilities and the luck of the draw, with attending superstitions.
This has been reprinted from Global Stamp News – February 1991 – Issue #4