Item of the Week: Playing Cards at the Clark

Published: March 31, 2011

From Library Assistant Lauren Zuchowski

The librarians at the Clark have plenty of gaming options with our playing card collection.  Our decks range from original artworks to facsimiles and each depict a historical event relevant to the collection at the library (bringing plots, revolutions, love, geography, reigns, war and more to life).  Originating in the East around 450 A.D., playing cards are thought to have initially consisted of a king, horsemen, camel and footman as the deck’s court.  It was not until the playing cards introduction in England was the queen incorporated into the pack and the court began to look like what we are familiar with today, although this didn’t happen until much later on.   When they were first introduced to Europe in the late 13th century the suits were more closely related to tarot cards (swords, staves, cups and coins).  By the end of the 14th century the use of playing cards had spread rapidly throughout Europe. Maybe the ghost of Mr. Clark could show us a card trick or two. Go fish!


These cards depict the fictitious Presbyterian Plot to kill King Charles II in 1679, created by fervent Catholics to discredit the Protestants and their power after the excitement of the Popish Plot (blogged about here) declined.  The original deck was produced in 1680 to chronicle the plot through political cartoons and the illustrations are thought to be designed by Francis Barlow (also credited with the design several other decks at the Clark, including our deck on the Spanish Armada and the reign of James II).

"Mr. Arnold assassinated" and "The sham Plott discovered"
"Protestants in Masquerade" and "Giles in the Pillory"


Below are images of original pictorial playing cards with love mottos circa 1700.  Each card has a traditional English phrase about love below the engraving.

"the softer Loves in combat meet" and "What can't the chilling streams of passion cool"
"the Silver disappears" and "sing praises to Ceres, the goddess of Corn"


This elaborately engraved original card deck illustrates the first Duke of Marlborough’s victories, the Spanish succession, royalty connected with the Duke of Marlborough’s overseas campaigns are depicted and other events during the reign of Queen Anne (from 1700-1706). The cards depict the key figures of the Spanish Succession and subsequent battle scenes and the suit of spades is specifically dedicated to denouncing Louis XIV and the French.

"My Grandfather before me was a Thief" and "The French King's Dream"
"George Prince of Denmark" and "Menin taken by D. of Marlborough"


Thomas Tuttell’s deck of cards, published in London around 1701, is dedicated to all the instruments used in navigation and surveying.  The four suits illustrate devices of both land and sea, portray curiosities of the time as well as display relevant charts and maps.

"Many useful Experiments" and "An Instrument with a Fee"
"Capable of any Employ" and "Know the use of both Globes"

If you’re as inspired to get out a deck and play as we are, you should come and view some of these decks in person!

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