June and the pack of cards ….


20150606_113347-1Well, the month of May is over Today is June and start to summer. June should be generous which her authentic gifts. Once again, the days should be sunny and hot. The flowers should be in bloom. Where are you June???????  It’s time to feast on strawberries and cream. It’s time to smiles deeper. Where are you June???????

According to Met Office climate record data collected by the Trinity Mirror Data Unit, Scotland, gets 153.2 wet days a year and Glasgow gets an average 170.3 days rains per year, making it Britain’s rainiest city.  112 cm of rain falls here very year.

What do you do when it’s raining? Well, it’s raining and I am going…

Where am I going……………….. Wonderland of course…                                    

You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’  –  Alice in Wonderland.


I’ve just been looking through my packs of cards! How beautiful the cards are! I think they are a work of art to be cherished. I especially like the Joker cards.


At first glance, this rectangle of stiff paper. But if you get a better look, cards reflect the history of the world. Because on the oldest figures were not anonymous.



Of the Queens in the pack, the two red queens are biblical figures. The Queen of Diamonds is Rachel, who finally married Jacob after he had worked seven years for her, and the Queen of Hearts if Judith, who showed her courage by chopping, off a general’s head. The other two queens are Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom for spades and Elizabeth 1, Good Queen Bess, for clubs. All the queens hold a flower but Athena, Queen of Spades, also carries a sceptre, the symbol of royal authority. The names were occasionally printed on the old cards, but today these personalities aren’t really considered, standardized or used in any way.

The King of Spades is David from the Bible, who killed the giant, Goliath and became King of Israel.  The king of Clubs is holding an orb in one hand and sword in another.  He represents Alexander the Great, the Greek king who set up an empire that covered most of the Middle East, and the orb is the symbol of this empire. Now look at the King of Diamonds. He’s Julius Caesar, and the only one carrying not a sword, but a battleaxe. The last king, of Hearts, is King Charlemagne, the French king who founded an empire in Europe during the 8th Century. The designs on the court cards hold some secrets as well.


Why is the king of hearts the only king without a moustache?

The King of Hearts is one of the most iconic cards in the deck, mainly because of his awkwardly placed sword. Because of that, he’s earned the nickname of “suicide king.”  The king of hearts is the only one without a moustache  – but not because of superior personal hygiene. For the purpose of mass production, the earliest cards were printed using woodblocks. Disfiguring occurred over the centuries as unskilled block makers distorted the original designs, resulting in hands, symbols of office and other attributes losing their meaning. Among the many distortions that took effect, the King of Hearts not only lost his moustache, but the axe he was originally holding became a sword. He originally had one, but it was lost in the reproduction of the original design. A similar mistake caused his axe to become a sword. Supposedly, after numerous copies, the integrity of the original artwork greatly declined. This lead to the vanishing of the King of Heart’s moustache and the other half of the axe which was traditionally slung over his shoulder, which would’ve resulted in a clear pattern: black kings carrying swords and red kings carrying axes.

Diamonds, clubs and spades are by association linked respectively with the corruption of wealth, war and death. In contrast, the heart as an organ is pure, open, undisguised – it does not wear artifice – hence the clean-shaven King of Hearts. Why is the Ace of Spades given special significance?


It used to be the case that Kings were the cards with the highest value in the deck, but from the 15th century on, the Ace, commonly the lowest valued card, became more important. Then under King James I of England, a law was passed requiring an insignia on the Ace of Spades as proof that the required taxes had been paid. This led to fairly lavish embellishments of company logos on only the Ace of Spades, which pursues to this day. The word “ace” comes from the Old French word as (from Latin ‘as’) meaning ‘a unit’, from the name of a small Roman coin. It originally meant the side of a die with only one mark, before it was a term for a playing card. Since this was the lowest roll of the die, it traditionally meant ‘bad luck’ in Middle English, but as the ace is often the highest playing card, its meaning has since changed to mean ‘high-quality, excellence’. This connotation has seen the word applied to an unreachable tennis serve, a successful fighter pilot and more generally as a person proficient in his or her field, especially a sporting field. Historically, the ace had the lowest value and this still holds in many popular European games (in fact many European decks, including the French and Latin suited decks, do not use the “A” index, instead keeping the numeral “1”). The modern convention of “ace high” seemed to have happened in stages.


photo from Saving Private Ryan movie (helmet markings http://www.sproe.com/h/helmet-markings.html )

The ace of spades has been employed, on numerous occasions, in the theater of war. In the Second World War, the soldiers of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the American 101st Airborne Division were marked with the spades symbol painted on the sides of their helmets. In this capacity, it was used to represent good luck, due to its fortunate connotations in card playing. All four card suits were used for ease of identification of regiments within the airborne division following the confusion of a large scale combat airborne operation. Battalions within the regiments were denoted with tic marks or dots, marked from top clockwise; Headquarters at the twelve o’clock position, 1st Battalion at the three o’clock, etc.

Vietnam War helmet.for those who served, they will know what the ace of

Vietnam War helmet.for those who served, they will know what the ace of

Some twenty years later, the ace of spades was again used by American soldiers – this time as a psychological weapon in the Vietnam War. US troops believed that Vietnamese traditions held the symbolism of the spade to mean death and ill-fortune and in a bid to scare away Viet Cong soldiers without a firefight, it was common practice to leave an ace of spades on the bodies of killed Vietnamese and even to litter the forested grounds and fields with the card. This custom was believed to be so effective, that the United States Playing Card Company was asked by Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment to supply crates of that single card in bulk. The crates were often marked with “Bicycle Secret Weapon”. (The Bicycle was the style of card reverse pattern).


The ace of spades, while not a symbol of superstitious fear to the Viet Cong forces, did help the morale of American soldiers. It was not unheard of for US soldiers and Marines to stick this card in their helmet band as a sort of anti-peace sign. More recently, in 2003 a deck of most-wanted Iraqi playing cards issued to US soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom, each card had the picture of a wanted Iraqi official on it. Saddam Hussein got the nickname “Ace of Spades” as that card bore his image.

sir Edwin Landseer, XIX w Uniwersytet w Dundee

Backing to cards history.The concept, and the technology to make the paper they are printed on, probably originated in China around the end of the first millennium. During the Tang dynasty of the 9th century AD, a Princess Tongchang is said to have played the “leaf game”. This was probably a paper form of dominoes rather than true cards, but 100 years later Emperor Mu- Tsung is recorded as shuffling and dealing the real thing. Cards did not arrive in Europe until the mid-14th century, either in Islamic Spain or as the result of trade between the Mamluks of Egypt and Italy. By this time they were already in something like their current form, so it’s reasonable to assume that the basic mechanics of cards – the four-suit system, royalty, and perhaps the concept of taking tricks – were established either in India or the Middle East.


a redrawn set of court cards with more intricate patterns on the clothing printed typographically

In the first years after their arrival, cards were illustrated by hand, and as such were a luxury only the aristocracy could afford. But such was the demand for packs that cheaper methods of production were called for, and by the early 15th century the Germans had mastered printing with wood blocks.


With the hardware easily obtainable, cards became popular among people of all classes and rapidly become a part of popular culture. What did not work at the tower of Babel, we succeeded in a deck of cards

an engraving from an issue of The London Illustrated News 1883 titled A Game of Cribbage Image courtesy Matt Probert.

an engraving from an issue of The London Illustrated News 1883 titled A Game of Cribbage Image courtesy Matt Probert.

The cards are sensitive to changing epochs and styles. Figures like wearing costumes timeless, but drawing the face and body, as well as imagery – from the realistic to the contractual – a lot of talk about the artistic fashions.


Their decks designed, among others, Salvador Dali and Margrethe II, Queen of Denmark. Cards also seduced the great wizards – Versace, Boss, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Herms invented their own versions of the figures to fit tightly to each other promoted by fashion. We can say – again dressed the King, Queen and Jack.


Hermes playing cards

Card madness inspired and continues to inspire inventors, designers, decorators. For addicts,  they were created not only instruments for dealing of cards.  Themes card colours appear on everything: furniture, everyday objects, textiles, costumes. Cards penetrated to literature (“The King, Queen, Jack,” Vladimir Nabokov), music  (“La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi) and painting.

Paul Cezanne titled ‘Man with a Pipe’ (1890-92) and ‘The Card Players’ (1890-92)

Paul Cézanne immortalized the “playing cards” as people focused on fair play, who do not intend to cheat a partner. You see, fair play pays off – gambler French impressionist three years ago, “they won” at an auction of $ 250 million.

Playing card or maybe Devil toy. About how great is their strength, he found out the hard way Fiodor Dostoyevsky. In April 1871, the writer and artist went to Wiesbaden, but instead the waters he spent his days and nights at a local casino. Apparently the game persuaded by his wife Anna, who believed that gambling adrenaline will help her husband escape from the darkness of depression. Stay in Wiesbaden ended on a total disaster. Dostoyevsky lost the card and roulette, all the money, including those that better half sent him to travel and to go home, borrowed to the right and to the left.

So, next time you play a game of cards look carefully at the pictures and think  about the history contained in the playing cards.


Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.



About conservationwithella

Hello, I'm Ella, Art on Paper Conservator & Preservation Manager at Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections. This blog is a walk through my daily life, work, arts & crafts history, my discovery that everything in my life is enough to be a continuous source of reflection. I started blogging to entertain myself but I hope you enjoy it too. I'm sure you agree, that Life without art is nothing. :)

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