Handmade Playing Cards

No. 1, October - November 1996

Welcome to my card collection. About every month, I'll update it with another set of cards for display. This is no commercial magazine site, just a guy with a collection, a computer, and a little time to play with. Further, let me say that I am not by any measure a serious researcher of the history of cards. I am merely a hobbyist, and these are merely some of the decks in my collection which have caught my eye. If you find errors in my history or my analysis, don't hesitate to let me know - I'm eager to learn, and I'd love for these pages to become something more worthwhile than a gallery of my fancy.

For other issues, related links, the catalog of my entire collection, and other administrative or trivial issues, please jump to the end of the page.

In my collection, I have a few authentic-looking historical recreation playing cards. Unlike modern cards, which use modern materials, chemical coatings and precision production machines, these cards are made on heavy card-stock paper without any plastic coatings, and made to look like playing cards did more than a century ago. Often well more than a century ago.

There are a handful of artisans nowadays making real playing cards, with wood-block printing plates, card-stock paper, and a lot of time and sweat, but most of the authentic-looking decks out there are the product of a small group of commercial makers. Especially in Europe, where the history of card making is more alive and immediate, you will often find reproduction decks being made by the modern card-making houses.

In my collection, I have three decks from one such European house, Solleonecarte of Lissone, one from an American maker, Cavallini and Co. of San Francisco (US), two decks from another American maker whose identity I haven't discovered, and finally one deck of truly authentic cards produced by an artist in Texas. Lately, I've also heard of a Kingdom in the Society for Creative Anachronism (a medieval recreationist organization) which is producing cards as a fundraiser. That's something I'd like to see more of.

[Renaissance Playing Cards]First and foremost, I must present the Renaissance Playing Cards deck from Full Deck Imagery, the work of an artisan in Texas who has produced a complete set of wood-block printing plates for a variation of a deck of cards he originally found in the book Playing Cards: History and Secrets of the Pack, by W. Gurney Benham. I've brought this deck out specially because it is the only deck I have which is truly authentically made (well, he did farm it out to a professional printer, but his plates are real). It makes a fine centerpiece for a gallery of historically accurate playing cards.

Beyond being a fine deck of authentically-made cards, it's also a wonderful look at card-making history. Included in the deck are two extra cards containing a quick lesson in the world of card-making in the 16th century in France. Definitely recommended reading.

And I can't resist an unsolicited advertisement. The decks cost $9 each plus $1.25 shipping, and Full Deck Imagery can be contacted at:

Full Deck Imagery

P.O. Box 36991
Houston, TX 77236-0991

Failing that, you might just see him at a local SCA event. Or look for him at the next Pennsic Wars.

[Aesop's Fables][Great Mogul]The two American-manufactured decks I have, both roughly 18th century British, I believe are recreations of specific decks. They have tax stamps from Great Britain wrapped around them, and are square-cut, uncoated cards with no back designs. The Great Mogul deck is a simple set of playing cards with multi-color period faces, and the Aesop's Fables deck is all intaglio printing with black ink, with fine line-art drawings featured..

I can't say for sure just how authentically produced these decks are, but at the worst they're mass produced with modern techniques using modern materials and they just appear authentic. I'm glad they put forth the effort either way.

[Toscana]Well worth a look is this deck, printed in Italy for Cavallini and Co., San Francisco, CA (US), named Toscana. This is a recreation of a 19th century Italian transformation deck. Transformation decks were quite a fad in the 19th century all across Europe, and involved transforming the normal pattern of pips on the card faces into fanciful pictures. This is easily one of the better transformation decks I've come across, and it's amazing what the original artist did with the shapes at his disposal. Actually, it's two of the better decks, since I also have a deck called Carte Comiche by Solleone, which is exactly the same deck, but without color in the number cards. I'd be intrigued to know whether the original had color.

Like the rest of the decks here, Toscana is made without any coatings, and apparently little reliance on modern materials. Naturally, they certainly use modern printing and manufacturing techniques, but that's to be expected. It does have back designs, straightforward though they are, which should be expected in 19th century decks.

Beware opening the Toscana page, though: given the intricacy and coloration of the cards, I couldn't condense the images any further down than I have without really compromising the quality. The thumbprints are each about 15K, and the full-size cards are about 60K. Be patient.

[Jeu de Drapeaux][Jeu Grotesque]Finally, I offer these two decks, reproductions of 19th Century French decks. These are part of a series of decks, I believe, reproduced by Vito Arienti and printed by Solleone. But I have so little information about these decks and their makers that for all I know, Solleone is synonymous with Vito Arienti. I actually have three Arienti decks, but the third, Carte Comiche, is a reproduction of the same deck used in the Toscana above, and the Toscana made a more visually appealing deck.

Unlike the other decks here, Arienti took especial pains to adhere to period manufacturing techniques, where reasonable, and it shows in the rough edges of the cards. I do wish the decks had come with some sort of history, so that could have answers to at least some of the questions they raise. Here more than ever, if you happen to know something about these decks, please drop me some mail. I'd be glad to add the information, and even more delighted just to learn.

The End of the Page

My collection, the list of publishers and manufacturers, and the history of my personal collection of cards can all be found in the "My Collection" page.

I thought about doing the standard Net thing and assembling a list of useful links surrounding playing cards, collecting and such, but no effort I could produce could possibly rival The Bob Lancaster Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards. And so, in deference to his monumental efforts, I provide only a link to him. I hope he doesn't have to pay by the hit...

And people are always asking me where to buy cards. There are plenty of places throughout the net that sell them, from little theme sites that happen to have a deck or two to enormous cards and games superstores. Bob's site lists many of them, but I have to confess - I just like Newt's Playing Cards. And they've got a heck of a selection.

Other Issues:

Issue 9, 10/99 - 12/99: Oh, the Places You'll Go

Issue 8, 11/98 - 12/98: Playing With Cards

Issue 7, 10/97 - 12/97: Sports Cards

Issue 6, 8/97 - 9/97: A Game of War

Issue 5, 6/97 - 7/97: Playing Cards As Art

Issue 4, 4/97 - 5/97: Court Fashions

Issue 3, 2/97 - 3/97: A Fortune in Playing Cards

Issue 2, 12/96 - 1/97: Literature on Playing Cards

Issue 1, 10/96 - 11/96: Handmade Playing Cards

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