hist-games: "Standard Pattern" Playing-Cards

Michael and Susan McKay seaan at concentric.net
Fri Jul 12 01:06:30 PDT 2002

I realized that I should probably define a term that I used when commenting
upon Sylvia Mann's _Alle Karten auf den Tisch_.  The sub-title of the book
(in English) is "The History of Standard
Playing Cards of the World".  The old hands can ignore the rest of this

There are actually two broad types of playing-cards, lets call them
"decorative" and "standard".  The most common types of cards seen in museums
and older playing card books are "decorative".  These cards are usually
works of art in their own right, and are almost always different from the
playing cards used by people to play card games.  Unfortunately many
decorative cards are typically not easy to play real card games with, and
usually don't give a true picture of how playing cards were used in
day-to-day life.

Sylvia Mann recognized the difficulties of only studying decorative cards,
and went on a crusade to study the playing-cards people actually used in
card games.  This often is much more difficult, because "standard" cards
don't usually have much value.  With normal use they get dirty, torn, or
loose cards.  When that happens, the decks typically get thrown away.
Aside: the best source of early "standard" playing-cards is from book
covers, where printers reused sheets of un-cut playing cards as part of the
book binding.

The practical cards were called "standard patterns" because it turns out
that card players were very conservative (see ** below).  The players
disliked even minor changes to the deck, and this effects the way decks
change over the years.  Sylvia Mann was instrumental in classifying various
standard patterns, and encouraging card collectors to pay attention to all
types of cards (not just the really pretty ones).

Thus, what I was trying to say in my comment about _Alle Karten auf den
Tisch_ was that it provided a good deal of information about the playing
cards used for game playing, and how these cards slowly changed over the

Michael McKay (known in the SCA as Seaan McAy)

** For an example of how conservative card players can be, here is a story
of my own.  While growing up in the US, I always thought the decks with a
fancy Ace of Spades were the "better" type of decks.  Little did I know that
the fancy Ace of Spades originated with English tax stamps 300 some-odd
years ago.  For more information on tax stamps, take a look at:

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