Deck of Diversity: Suits, Symbols, & Cultural Differences
How Playing Cards Evolved
Can a deck of cards be the cultural thread linking ancient and modern cultures across the globe? When we trace the origin story of our modern decks and card suites, we find that this simple game can be a lesson in influence and evolution.
The first playing cards were invented in ancient China around 1000 AD. These original decks had suits that came from Chinese money cards, each representing a different unit of currency. Ancient Chinese cards games originally resembled trick-taking games like today’s Bridge or Spades. These morphed into the earliest types of rummy and other draw-and-discard (or fishing) games with the direction of deal and play going counter-clockwise.
Chinese immigrants brought their highly portable games into Egypt. Islamic influence converted these suits into goblets, gold coins, swords, and polo sticks. By 1360, playing cards moved throughout the known western world and infiltrated Europe. However, Europeans did not know what polo was and their decks evolved, substituting batons or staves instead.
By the end of the fifteenth century, playing cards had overrun Western Europe so much that different regions had developed specific suits for their location. Some represented everyday objects like animals, helmets, or hunting equipment, others included roses, crowns, pennies, and rings. Portuguese sailors introduced dragon decks into Japan in the sixteenth century, which were made of the Italian and Spanish suits: chalices, swords, money, and batons. The highest ace was represented by a dragon, which gave the deck its name.
In Germanic countries, the suits became the acorns, leaves, hearts, and hawk bells that are still in use today. The French developed stencils that simplified these German shapes into clovers, pike-heads, hearts, and paving tiles to make production easier. Once in England, the names of these shapes changed; pike-heads became spades, clovers were clubs, and paving tiles became diamonds. Eventually, Spanish sailors brought their decks to American Indians, who then used them as a model for their own suits, and continued to play with these local decks even after the more common French cards arrived from Europe.
Thus the playing card deck moved across the globe and throughout history, evolving with each new people group into the deck of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades we know today.
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