Of Playing Card Suits

Carmen D. Lade

Playing cards have long been a source of entertainment for the young and old alike. Card games have become a part of our lives so much that even in the age of the Internet; we still have digitalized versions of those games in our computers.

The usual appearance of cards has remained unchanged throughout the years. The symbols for each suit are the same as they were when they were introduced to England in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The jack, queen, and king of today’s pack appear much as they did in that day; their costumes are similar to those of the royal court of England in the renaissance. Decks of cards were divided into four suits in China and this practice was continued in Europe. The French divided the deck into four suits supposedly representing the four main divisions of mankind: the nobility, represented by a sword (pique); the clergy, represented by a heart (cœur); the merchants and the tradesmen, represented by a diamond (carreau); and the peasantry, represented by a club (trèfle). These four suits were adopted by the English and are known today as spades (from the Spanish espada, which means sword), hearts, diamonds, and clubs. The highest cards in each suit, the royal, court, or picture cards, are of obvious derivation. The intricate patterns on each picture card are said to have specific meanings, as do the type and position of the symbols on the card. After the revolutions in the United States, France, and Russia, efforts were made in those countries to eliminate the references to royalty in playing cards, but the symbols had become so thoroughly accepted by card players that the attempts to change them were abandoned. Other efforts to alter the traditional appearance of playing cards have met with little success. Four colors instead of two have been used for the four suits, different arrangements of the pips on the cards have been attempted, and cards with black backgrounds have been introduced. In 1937 an extra suit was added, called Eagles in the United States and Crowns in England, and a five-suit bridge game was introduced. It met with limited success.

Usually four suits are maintained in every culture but they are not necessarily the same. The German suit used hearts, bells, acorns, & leaves or grass. The Swiss-German suit used roses, bells, acorns, & shields. The Spanish & Italian (north) suit had cups, coins, clubs, & swords. India has badam, charkat, kilawar, & ispik.

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