Playing cards are flat, rectangular pieces of layered pasteboard typically used for playing a variety of games of skill or chance. They are thought to have developed during the twelfth century from divination implements or as a derivative of chess. Cards are produced by the modern printing processes of lithography, photolithography, or gravure. In the future, more computerized methods will likely be adopted promising to generate a substantial increase in the playing card manufacturing industry.
The exact story of the emergence of playing cards is debated. Some historians believe that cards were developed in India and derived from the game of chess. Others suggest that they were developed as implements for magic and fortune telling in Egypt. The first written record of the use of playing cards comes from the Orient, dating back to the twelfth century. Playing cards were introduced to Europe during the thirteenth century from the Middle East. Evidence suggests that they first arrived in Italy or Spain and were quickly spread throughout the continent.
Some of these early playing cards were very similar to our modern day cards. They consisted of 52 cards with four suits including swords, cups, coins, and polo-sticks. They also had numerals from one to ten and face cards, which included a king, deputy king and second deputy king. When Europeans began to produce their own cards, they did not produce consistent designs and any number of suits or face cards would be made. In the latter part of the fifteenth cenwry, standardized versions of cards began to appear. The modern day system of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs first appeared in France around 1480.
The availability of cards became more wide-spread as production processes improved. The earliest decks of playing cards were hand-colored with stencils. Consequently, they were extremely expensive to produce and were owned almost exclusively by the very wealthy. Cheaper products were also produced, but it is likely that they deteriorated quickly with use. With the advent of new printing processes, production volumes of playing cards were increased. During the fifteenth century, a method of producing cards using wooden blocks as printing templates was introduced in Germany. These decks were quickly exported throughout Europe. The next significant advance in card manufacture was the replacement of wood blocking and hand coloring with copper plate engraving during the sixteenth century. When color lithography was developed in the early 1800s, the production of playing cards was revolutionized. New printing techniques promise to further improve the production of future decks of cards.
A standard deck of playing cards consists of 52 cards which have a rectangular shape, dimensions of about 2.5 x 3.5 in (6.35 x 9 cm), and rounded corners. The cards are made up of layers of paper and are often called pasteboards. The faces of these cards are typically decorated with two colors, red and black, and four suits including clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. Each suit has thirteen cards consisting of three face cards (king, queen, jack) and number cards from one (ace) to ten. The face cards are doubleended, which means the same design is on both halves of the card. This eliminates the need to orient these cards in a hand as both ends will automatically be positioned correctly. In the upper left corner of most cards are index numbers and symbols, which make the card value clearly visible when held in a fan position. This is the position most often used during a card game. Two jokers are also typically included with a new pack of cards.
The backs of the cards are decorated with a unique pattern indicative of the card manufacturer. Red and blue are the most commonly used colors, but almost any color or design is possible. Often a company will order a deck of cards as an advertising specialty and have their logo printed on the card back. Some card backs have a white border while the pattern on others extends to the edge of the card. In general, the back patterns are symmetrical so cards have only one real orientation. Notable exceptions are advertising specialty and souvenir cards, which typically have a non-symmetrical picture on the back.
Cards are used for a variety of purposes. The most common use of cards is for playing parlor games. Some of the more popular games include bridge, rummy, and gin. Gambling games such as poker and black-jack also employ standard decks of cards. In addition, specially printed cards are used as game implements for board games. These cards may have trivia questions, words, or symbols on them that are important in game play. Other types of cards are used as teaching aids.
Non-standard decks of cards are also available and used for different reasons. Tarot cards are typically larger and heavy than standard cards. They have 78 cards, 22 of which have symbolic images. They are used for fortune telling and divination purposes. A variety of magic, or trick, cards are produced. One type of trick cards is marked cards. The back design of these cards is subtly changed so that the faces can be determined just by looking at the back. Other trick decks have shortened cards or have tapered ends, which help a conjuror find a selected card. Novelty cards are also manufactured. This includes oddly shaped cards or metal cards for outdoor use, which can stick to a magnetized playing surface.
Playing cards may have been used in China as early as the seventh century and perhaps were known in India around this time as well—early European playing cards include Indian motifs associated with Hindu Gods. No one is sure how the playing card moved from Asia to Europe—did Niccolo Polo or his son introduced the playing card and associated games to Italy? Or perhaps the Arabs introduced the Spanish to the colorful hand-painted cards? Nevertheless, we do know that by the thirteenth century the entire continent enjoyed card-playing; the British card-makers petitioned for protection from imported cards, and German printers were block-printing rather than hand-painting cards by the late 1400s.
Dutch, French, and British settlers in the New World brought playing cards with them. Americans and others use the 52<ard deck based on the French deck, and include the medieval motifs of the spade, club, diamond, and heart. While the deck motifs have remained relatively unchanged, clothing and appearance of the court cards have been altered according to card designer and intended market. The "Union Playing Cards," shown here, were printed around the time of the American Civil War. They include no depicted European-style royalty, but use politicians and famous Union generals in their place! They were surely printed to bolster pride in the Union cause and thumb their nose at the European royalty at the same time.
Nancy EV Bryk
Playing cards can be made with paper or plastics. To make a card, layered paper is used. Layered paper is produced by putting a number of sheets of paper in a stack and gluing them together. This type of paper is stronger and more durable than standard paper. Higher quality cards may be made from polymeric plastic films and sheets. One material that is often used is a cellulose acetate polymer. This is a semisynthetic polymer that is made into a paper-like sheet by being cast from a solution. This produces a film, which can be stacked and laminated to produce an appropriately thick sheet. This material is much more durable than paper and cards that are made with it last considerably longer. Vinyl plastics are also used in the production of cards. Paper cards are typically of lower quality and wear out more quickly than plastic cards.
The production of a deck of cards involves the three primary steps including printing the pasteboards, cutting the sheets and assembling the deck. While a variety of printing processes may be employed, lithography continues to be used extensively.
Printing the pasteboards
- 1 Creating the printing plates is the first step in the production of playing cards. This process begins with camera ready artwork, or electronically created images, which contain pictures of each card that will be included in the deck. A plate is also created for the backs of the cards. Using a photographic process a negative of the image is exposed to a flat plate and coated with a light sensitive material. The plate is developed, and the image area is coated with an oily material that will attract ink but repel water. The non-image area is coated with a mixture, which will attract water and repel ink. One plate must be created for each of the different colors that will be printed on the card.
- 2 To begin printing, the plates are mounted on rotating cylinders in the printing press. When the press is started, the plate is passed under a roller, which coats it with water. The image area on the plate, previously treated with the oily material, repels the water and remains uncoated. An ink roller is next passed over the plate. Since an oil-based ink is used, it adheres to the plate only on the water-resistant sections.
- 3 A rubber roller is then passed over the printing plate and the ink from the plate is transferred to it. The card paper is passed under the rubber roller and the ink is transferred to it. The paper is then passed to the next roller assembly where another color may be added. The ink is specially formulated so it dries before it enters the next roller assembly. This process of wetting, inking, and printing is continuous through-out the card manufacturing run.
- 4 When one sheet of paper exits the printing press, it contains an image on both sides. One side has the image of each card in the deck while the other has the card back image. At this point, the sheet may be coated with a special clear polymer mixture that gives it a slick, glossy look and feel. This coating also helps to protect the cards making them longer lasting.
Cutting and stacking
- 5 After both sides of the pasteboards are printed, they are transported to a card cutting station. Here precision-cutting machines cut the cards out from the printed sheets. The cards are cut such that each card is of identical size. They are then assembled into their respective sets and organized into stacks. At this point, the stack contains all of the cards that will end up in the final packaging.
Further cutting and packaging
- 6 The stack of cards is next transported via conveyor belt to a corner punching station. When it reaches the platform of this station, the stack is pushed up into the punching device, which rounds off the corners on one side of each card in the stack. During this phase of production, the stack of cards are held tightly in the punching blades so each card is cut identically. The stack is then removed and transported to another punching station. Here the corners of the other side of the stack of cards are rounded off. After the cards are removed from this station, all four corners are rounded and the decks are ready for final packaging.
- 7 The stack of cards is returned to the main conveyor and transferred to the packaging station. Here a machine feeds formed boxes onto the assembly line. The cards are then inserted into the box. The boxes are closed and sealed with a sticker at the top. The box is then transported to a shrinkwrap machine where it is wrapped in a clear plastic such as cellophane. The finished deck of cards is then placed in a case with other decks, stacked on pallets and shipped on trucks to distributors.
Quality control begins with the incoming inks and other raw materials used to create the deck of cards. If the manufacturer produces their own stock paper, it is checked to ensure that it measures up to specifications related to physical appearance, dimensions, consistency, and other characteristics. The inks are minimally tested for color, viscosity, and solubility. For materials that are supplied by outside vendors the card manufacturer often relies on the supplier's quality control inspections. Prior to a first printing, the plates are tested to verify they will produce a quality print. During production, the sheets are randomly checked for a variety of printing errors or ink smears. Defective sheets are removed prior to cutting. Line inspectors are also stationed at various points on the production line to make sure that each pack is produced in a flawless manner.
Future developments in playing card manufacture will focus on new card designs and methods of printing. Since the market for playing cards remains relatively mature, card producers will attempt to increase sales by introducing novel card designs. This might involve using new base materials for the cards, producing three-dimensional designs, or creating novel shapes. With the vast improvements in computer technologies, a variety of new printing methods will be employed. These methods will be used to increase the speed at which cards will be produced. They will also eliminate the need for creating plates as printing can be done directly from computer images. This will make it easier to produce personalized decks quickly and economically.
Where to Learn More
Kirk Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. John Wiley & Sons. New York: 1992.
Morley, H.T. Old and Curious Playing Cards. Book Sales, 1989.
Seymour, R. and C. Carraher. Polymer Chemistry. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., 1992.
Wowk, K. Playing Cards of the World. U.S. Games Systems, 1982.
Pedersen, T. U.S. Patent #4,779,401, 1988.
A. S. Hargreaves
play·ing card • n. each of a set of rectangular pieces of cardboard or other material with an identical pattern on one side and different numbers and symbols on the other, used to play various games, some involving gambling. A standard deck contains 52 cards divided into four suits.