Mysterium - The World's Oldest Deck of Cards

Posted by Jonathan Bayme on 20 March 2013

Editor’s Note: This article is the ninth in a weekly series by Jason England: MYSTERIUM. Each article in this series will be posted on Wednesday at 11:00am EST – every post on a different subject. This week, Jason shares the history of playing cards - and the world's OLDEST deck.

The World's Oldest Deck of Cards

Playing cards weren’t “invented” in the sense that other objects are invented. There isn’t a single day or week in history that we can point to and state that playing cards were invented during that period. Rather, playing cards evolved into their present form. We know that the Chinese were using paper objects very much like playing cards for various games as early as the 9th century and perhaps as much as 500 years earlier. These cards had traditional Chinese pictogram images on them and were related to both dice and dominoes.

A range of 500 years - give or take a century, here or there - is a pretty wide swath of history. Why such imprecision?

Well, it turns out that how one defines the term “playing cards” is what pushes the date back farther into history. Are dominoes essentially playing cards? They both contain an “information” side and an “all the same” side.

They’re both used in games. They’re both typically shuffled before play begins. They both involve concealing or revealing the “information” side depending on the game being played and the strategies employed. I could go on. Conceptually, one could argue that dominoes and playing cards are essentially the same thing.

Most historians would argue that while dominoes and playing cards are very similar, the construction of playing cards is what really sets them apart from dominoes.

Simply put, playing cards are made of (essentially) paper. Other gaming implements aside, it wasn’t until the invention of paper that making playing cards, as we understand them today, became possible.

In the late-1300s, playing cards appeared in Europe. Some of the earliest references date from legal notices outlawing playing cards. Cards seem to have surfaced in virtually every country in Europe simultaneously, which almost certainly means they caught on like wildfire, at least amongst those that could afford them.

There are historical mentions of playing cards in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain that all date to the late 14th century.

In 1983, Sotheby’s in London auctioned a deck of cards that was said to be one of, if not the earliest complete European deck known to exist. Although the deck contained 52 cards, with four “suits” and three court cards each, the suits don’t correspond to our modern suits. Instead of hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds, these cards depict hunting and sporting themes – horns, dog collars, ropes and nooses for catching game.

The cards were dated by a variety of methods to somewhere between 1465 – 1480 an attributed to an area of what is now in northern France. The deck was touted as the “world’s oldest deck of cards.” It almost certainly isn’t, but it can lay claim to being one of the most expensive. Almost thirty years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City paid over $143,000.00 for it.