Book Report IX: A History of Playing Cards

We started this book report series to share what we’re reading — usually books about queer joy, the circular economy, and card games. We love history books and are not afraid of confronting old ideas and respecting a book enough to read it even if we find its ideas repugnant. The Eurocentric racism of A History of Playing Cards, first published in 1930, is cringey. And looking back, we should have expected that this was basically early 20th century organic product placement by a playing card company rather than an earnest attempt at academia.

Catherine Perry Hargrave’s central point is that though art styles and relationships to cards in Europe and North America have changed, the games themselves, and the reasons people play and make cards have largely stayed the same. We all still want to have fun, gamble, and bond with our friends to distract us from our worries. And cards are still important vessels for political, religious, educational, and commercial agendas. 

The book doesn’t trace the histories of games themselves, but rather dives deep into the artefacts in the collection of United States Playing Card Company, the publishing conglomerate behind brands like Bicycle, Aviator, and Hoyle. The images of the cards, even in grainy black and white, are beautiful and fun to imagine in use in their time. The collection is overwhelmingly European and North American, and honestly, it was boring.

She credits 700/800AD India with the invention of chess, and its adaptation into transportable versions made of paper. But her respect doesn’t start until the Oder, and the book is basically the story of the printing press in Europe and the US. Cards were Royal playthings until the explosion in their accessibility from the 1420s, when printing began and cards could be celebrations of courts, popes, educational games, and for fortune-telling.

Anyone have a more recent, worldly take on the subject? If not - anyone want to write one as a zine or blog series for us? Reach out - we’re always looking for content collaborators and this could be a cool project!

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