Cumberland Times-News

January 28, 2012

Wondering? Here’s how cards began

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News


Just in the last few years, I have become quite the cardplayer .My father would be amazed, because he would not allow me or my brothers to play cards (with the regular cardfaces) when we were growing up. We were, however, allowed to play other games that had cards of their own, like Touring and Flinch.
I have to be amused sometimes at the way my father’s ideas moderated through the years. In his later years he was known to play canasta and solitaire, and possibly even pinochle. I understand it totally, since my ideas have moderated too. As I grew older I began to realize that the world is more complex than simply separating pre-sorted behaviors into good or bad. But that’s another issue.
What we are dealing with here is playing cards and their complex history, which I find quite interesting, since I am a history buff. What I didn’t know was that historically you just don’t get playing cards before you get paper.
I had not thought of this before, but it would have been a problem carrying around a stone deck of cards. Not that our early ancestors had pockets in their parkas. And there seems to be no evidence of sheepskin playing cards or papyrus or vellum ones, either. So it seems obvious that cards as we know them followed the highway of ancient paper-making.
China, of course, no news here, was tops early on in papermaking, and, once it got started, paper-manufacture spread fairly quickly to India, Egypt, and Persia. And with it, of course, the gentle art of card-playing. Well, nothing was very gentle in those days, and card-playing, of course, has its own background of violence. It’s quite likely that card-playing spread from the East to the West through the Crusades, particularly in the 12th century.
It was a bad habit, always connected to gambling, that rather took over the world. The soldiers who survived brought back the one thing that had relaxed them in between bouts of mortal combat in the not-so-Holy Wars. For that reason, or just on its own, it earned the hatred of the Catholic Church, which, from the pulpit, banned cards and card-playing in Swiss and Italian towns as early as 1367. Other European towns followed suit, so to speak.
Not that it made any difference. Card-playing spread like wildfire. So did the Church’s hatred of it, both Catholics and later, when they happened, Protestants. From the 14th to the 20th century many religious people in America, like my father in his early years, followed a long tradition of disapproval for cardplaying.
But it was impossible to wipe out. Not that anyone but the church wanted to do that. Cards spread across Europe, usually in the form of decks with 10 numbered cards called pips and higher ranking cards called court cards.
In early days there were suits of “flowers, bears, hares, parrots, lions, deer, leaves, acorns, and wild men.” ( I got all this information from Early American Life, February 2009, in an article by Amy Poole.) They were probably a lot less boring than the present kings, queens and jacks which got their start in England and remain virtually unchanged in their general appearance since the 15th century. The classic costumes are (even now) basically from the English court of Henry Vll.
A very early reference to cards in the New World tells of Columbus’ men, unregenerate gamblers, throwing their cards overboard, hoping to please God when a storm blew up. Later, not having learned much, they made new cards out of the “leaves of the copas tree, which greatly interested the Indians.” The Puritan streak took over the New World in the early 1600s, and card playing was banned both in Virginia and New England , where children and servants were “for the second offence to bee publicly whipt.” It wasn’t easy being a colonist in those days, especially a virtuous one.
Finally there was the Stamp Act. Remember that important contribution to the American Revolution? All packs of playing cards shipped from England (the Americans had apparently not yet learned to make their own) were taxed a shilling a deck and each pair of dice, ten shillings. As a final insult, the proceeds were used to finance the cost of keeping the English troops in the Colonies. But the tax probably really spurred on the manufacture of cards in the New Country.
At Valley Forge, George Washington issued a stern directive forbiding the troops from playing cards or other games of chance. It was disregarded. Actually, you have to wonder why he did that, for surely they needed some amusement at Valley Forge. And besides that Washington himself greatly enjoyed playing cards at Mount Vernon and gambled heavily.The rest of society enjoyed cards too, especially in Virginia, where the Puritan culture had less influence than in New England.
And here’s an interesting reference from more recent history (Thank you, JG to my west on this page. ) A 1948 hit by country music singer T. Texas Tyler, tells about a young American soldier arrested for playing cards during church. He clears himself by pointing out that for him all the cards have Biblical meanings. The Ace is God, the Deuce stands for the two Testaments, The Queen is the Virgin Mary, and so forth. So, essentially, he is going to church whenever he plays cards.Wish I had thought of that!
The traditional moral judgment on cardplaying has lasted among some churchgoers into our own time, but it seems to me that, when it is detached from gambling, the most faithful Christians who play cards need not worry about their morals,
Your priest or preacher will not scold you for it.
Betcha a nickel.
Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.