A deck of playing card is one of the most widely recognized objects: 52 cards in a deck, four suits, red and black printing, etc. Describe a “typical” playing card to someone from ancient China, 1600s France, or the Civil War-era South, however, and they may not have any clue what the heck you’re talking about.
The truth is, no deck of cards is alike. One of your favorite past times has a richer history than you may expect, and everything from its origin to its design to its ultimate usage are little-known international debates. Behind your yellowed, worn-out deck of cards is a complicated backstory you never saw coming.
Though it’s the subject of intense international debate, playing cards almost definitely originated in China. If you consider dominoes to be the distant cousins of playing cards, then you would’ve fit right in with the ancient Tang Dynasty…
Scrolls from the Tang Dynasty mention a game of paper tiles, which were a cross between dominoes and playing cards. More recent versions resemble MahJong tiles, but this is considered to be the first recorded usage of playing cards (sorry, Britain!)
Other historians trace playing cards back to nomads who brought fortune telling cards, later known as tarot, with them from India. Truly, the origin of playing cards are shrouded in mystery…but there’s no doubt how they became so ingrained in pop culture.
Playing cards as we know them today — as objects of amusement — had a more debaucherous use in medieval Europe. Back then, a card game always meant alcohol, gambling, and the potential for violence. And when something supports a vice, more people want to do it.
Card games became so connected to violence and law-breaking that they were often banned. In 1377 Paris, for example, it was forbidden to play card games on workdays in fear that it would cause an outbreak of bad behavior.
No one hated card games more than religious officials, and European preachers were convinced that the “Devil’s picture book” led to a life of crime. But like most forbidden things, playing cards were still extremely popular…among all walks of life.
Everybody played card games, even those who probably wouldn’t admit it: Kings, clerics, friars, noblewomen, sailors, prostitutes, and prisoners are only a few groups who passed the time with playing cards. That said, one group saw cards as more than just a passing amusement.
The Card Players/Samuel H. Kress Collection
No one saw more money-making potential in playing cards than gamblers, and they made doing so their first priority. Gamblers filled bars, basements, and pretty much any concealed location, all the while shaping playing cards into what we recognize today.
A Kick-up at a Hazard Table/Thomas Rowlandson
52 cards with four suits make up a standard deck. The symbols that make the suits (clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades) are called “pips,” and it’s these symbols that reveal cultural secrets from the region they come from.
The pips on playing cards were once lavishly detailed because they were meant to tell a story, and to catch the eye for their artistic value as much as for their usefulness. Through their artwork, the stories they told were certainly complex.
Thomas de la Rue & Co., Ltd.
Pips in particular always had symbolic meanings that reflected what most fascinated 16th-century Europe, mainly astronomy, alchemy, mysticism, and history, according to The Atlantic. Some historians suggest the pips we know of today originated from these very topics.
Specifically, some believe that pips represent the four classes of Medieval society: Clergy (hearts), nobility (spades), merchants (diamonds), and peasants (clubs). Listed this way, it all seems very logical, but truthfully, this kind of logic just doesn’t apply in the debaucherous world of playing cards.
Modern day suits were influenced by years of cultural shifts and changing attitudes. German playing cards, for example, obviously use different pips than those originating in England, as their iconology is different.
Instead of spades, German cards featured bells, since they more accurately represented German nobility. Diamonds in France represented the upper class rather than anything mercenary. Other common symbols — roses, clovers, acorns, shields — are more difficult to explain.
According to experts, these symbols often can’t be traced back to any specific meaning. When it comes to those cards detailed with roses and shields, it’s all about the personal taste of the nobleman commissioning his own special deck.
József Schneider/William Tell pack
Unlike pips, “face cards,” once called “courtesan cards,” have remained largely unchanged to this day. How is this possible, given the variable nature of pips? It all comes down to history’s habit of being permanent.
British and French face cards always featured the same four kings: Charles, David, Caesar, and Alexander the Great (no queens represented on these decks, unfortunately.) Spanish cards featured knights, and Germans divided their suits into kings, noblemen, and peasants.
Queens weren’t overlooked for long, though, and Britain even instituted the “British rule” in which the values of the king and queen cards are swapped if the reigning monarch of England is a woman. Then, there are the wild cards.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Fittingly, the two wild cards are often represented by a wily court jester. They first appeared in American decks but were quickly added to British productions, and they weren’t always seen as the “optional” cards in a deck.
The Dark Knight (2008)
In fact, they were supposed to trump the value of any natural card. Nowadays, they’re true wildcards in how they aren’t always featured in a standard deck. Still, the tricky joker card has nothing on what is likely the most controversial card in the deck.
David Finley/U.S. Navy
The ace has been dividing players since it appeared in the 1700s: Does it have the highest or lowest value? (Answer: It depends on what game you’re playing.) The ace is one of the most recognizable cards in the deck, and it’s not the only card that stands out.
Of all the “face cards,” the king of hearts is recognizable for the sword he always seems to be plunging into his own skull. Surprisingly, this image doesn’t have a bloody backstory; rapid production of cards merely degraded the integrity of the image!
We can’t forget one of the most important innovations of playing cards, which is the use of numbers on the upper corners of cards. Patented during the Civil War, these “corner indices” revolutionized game play in how it forced players to develop their own etiquette.
The way most players hold cards is because of the corner indices: They’re almost always tightly fanned so as to conceal one’s “hand” from the other players. You probably “perform” this etiquette without even thinking about it…
Now You See Me 2 (2016)
And if you’re familiar with poker, then you know how essential this etiquette is to playing the game. You hold your cards close to your chest while maintaining as indifferent an expression as possible, resulting in one of the most well-known playing card traditions.
Cards’ growth in popularity opened manufacturers up to business opportunities, including as propaganda, classroom tools, and means of advertisement. Obviously, this hasn’t changed over time — all you have to do is check Pinterest for proof.
North Virginia Community College
During medieval times and today, cards have been used as invitations, tickets, wedding announcements, obituary notices, and even as notes between lovers. They can hold a special meaning beyond their pips, and can even become important historical documents studied by historians.
Today, you can find playing cards in practically any size and shape and with as simple or ornate a design as you want. Still, the average deck, sometimes creased and smudged and missing a couple cards, offers a unique glimpse into another time.
So, too, will a trip to an old arcade, where glittery pinball machines line the walls. Like playing cards, these iconic machines were nearly eradicated, but you don’t have to go back 500 years to find out when.
There used to be this little cigar shop up on 106th street in East Harlem, New York. It dealt out the finest fixes and vices to the neighborhood and always had at least a few heads hanging around. So no one blinked an eye on March 6th, 1948, when an unfamiliar man with a single penny in his pocket walked into the shop.
Without throwing so much as a glance toward the tobacco-lined shelves, the man swaggered directly for his target — The Marvel Pop Up. With one slide of his thumb across the clean copper for luck, the man dropped the penny into the slot and braced for the pinball to drop.
His luck seemed to betray him as 3, 4, 5 balls fell back into the machine, the tiny pings punctuating his defeat. As the 6th and final silver orb descended down, the man found his stride and sunk the little ball into a hole that won him a free play… but the game was already over.
Instead of collecting on his free turn, the man, an undercover New York City police officer, cuffed the owner of the small cigar shop for “unlawful possession of a gambling machine.” Jail time was a hard knock, but it was nothing compared to the fate of The Marvel Pop Up.
The old machine played her last game that day. Like many before and after her, she faced the sledgehammer. This was a case as common as any during the years New York’s government made it their mission to end the greatest perceived threat to American society — pinball.
It almost seems like a joke by today’s standards, but from the moment pinball emerged on the scene during the Great Depression, it was seen as a crime-inducing, moral-soiling corruption. But of course, as vehemently as it was loathed, it was just as equally adored.
Still, many anti-pinballers took the position that the game was a form of gambling. For anyone who’s ever pinned a ball, that probably sounds outlandish, but before the advent of the “flipper,” the button-operated arms that flings your pinball around, the game was pretty irrefutably a gamble.
In the pre-flipper days, gamers had to actually tilt and turn the tables to drive the balls into holes. There was little to no skill involved, balls were rolling wild, and in the days before digital, wild balls were a hoot!
People gathered in droves to bars and shops hosting the games, and men even placed bets with prizes ranging from a free game or gum to jewelry and chinaware. And once the coin-operated machines came out in 1931, a whole new type of crowd was piqued.
Pinballs’ popularity was no longer exclusive to louche men with armoirs full of arcade china. With games at a penny a play, kids were all over pinball like ants on cookie crumbs. But their “frivolous pursuits” as the anti-pinballers called it, were to be short-lived.
Schools, churches, mothers, and other morally conservative entities were in the throes of hysteria as they watched kids ditching school and skipping meals to drop some metal into the machines. Of course with a commotion like this, it wasn’t long before the government got involved.
The mayor of New York, Fiorello H. LaGuardia was adamant about pinball being a gateway game to crime and juvenile delinquency. Aside from the flirtation with gambling, he claimed pinball was a flagrant waste of resources, which is what ultimately liberated him to crack down.
See, right after Pearl Harbor, the mayor used the excuse that thousands of tons of metal were being wasted on pinball machines when they should be used to create weapons and tanks to destroy the enemy. We’re in a war people! And who can argue with war?
So with rationing on his side, the mayor officially banned pinball in New York on January 21st, 1942. The new prohibition was set in motion immediately with a drastic confiscation agenda. But LaGuardia was sure this new plan to eradicate pinball would work out exactly the way Pearl Harbor didn’t.
Police squads wasted no time in raiding bars, shops, soda fountains, and anywhere else that kept the criminal game. It was estimated that LaGuardia and his horde of heavies seized over 2,000 pinball machines, about a fifth of the city’s count.
Funny enough, despite the scale-tipping factor of pinball machines wasting precious resources that could be used for the wartime efforts, the fate of thousands of snatched machines left a lot to be desired. And no one was making any efforts to hide it.
In fact, LaGuardia frequently assembled the press to raids where reporters snapped shots of pinball machines being lined up firing squad style and sledgehammered to oblivion. So, of course, the next step was to recycle all that precious metal for ammunition, right?
Nope! Instead, hundreds of tons of pinball remains where paraded through the streets of New York and dumped into the Long Island sound like a pack of mob informants. Time reporters have since estimated that “the contraband contained enough metal to build four 2,000 pound aerial bombs.”
Things carried on in this fashion for decades, as cities across the U.S. followed in the footsteps of New York, also decrying the devilish machines. Pinball essentially became the Footloose of games; its underground following had a pulse of its own.
Illicit pinball rings certainly never held any sort of monarchy, but if there had to be a crowned king it would without a doubt have been Roger Sharpe. The NYC-based writer spent all his loose change and hours ballin’ the jack at pinball, but with worthy avail indeed.
You asked anyone in town who was the best around, and without hesitation, Sharpe’s name was darting out of their mouths like a pinball off a hot flipper. It wouldn’t be until 1976, however, that Sharpe’s taboo skills truly became victorious.
See, during the ’70s, New York was facing a dire bankruptcy crisis, and in an effort to capitalize wherever they could, councilmen began debating the ban on pinball. With the prohibition raised, licensing and taxes could be imposed on the popular entertainment. But there was still a major obstacle.
Pinball was still considered a form of gambling. Many officials were split on this issue, with opponents staunch in their position. But whisperings of the ban being overturned made it to pinball distributors, and they didn’t hesitate to put in their two cents.
The Amusement and Music Operators Association knew to win this battle they needed to make a convincing case that pinball was indeed a game of skill and not luck, therefore quashing the argument that pinball is gambling. So in a pinball crisis, who you gonna call?
© Comedy Central
None other than Roger Sharpe! While that pivotal call wasn’t documented, it essentially went something like: “Yo, we hear you’re the best. And if you want to game out and proud, we need you to play pinball in front of the entire New York City council and prove that this is a game of skill.”
© Comedy Central
Sharpe dutifully accepted his mission, and on a May morning in 1976, he strutted into a Manhattan court with all the swagger of an undercover cop. And there in the courtroom, encircled by a gaggle of councilmen, was the controversial defendant herself, the pinball machine.
Breath was bated as Sharpe explained, “Look, there’s skill, because if I pull the plunger back just right, the ball will, I hope, go down this particular lane.” The court was suspended in silence as Sharpe narrowed his eyes at that target lane to liberation and pulled back the plunger.
As Sharpe made his Fosse-like release, the pinball shot out of the machine, a sweet chariot blazing down its ordained lane. Roger Sharpe may not have been the official king of pinball, but he did call the shot that dissolved the 30-year prohibition.
After Sharpe’s monumental game, New York City went on to raise over $1.5 million dollars off pinball fees. The city never declared bankruptcy. And today, pinball is celebrating yet another resurgence, with over 1,800 tournaments held across the country every year.
It’s fair to say, the Marvel Pop Up was officially avenged! And despite its dramatic beginnings, pinball is now decisively an American classic. But there are many things, like gambling, that can obviously be polarizing subjects.
Fashion, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fall next in line, however, one trend of clothes nearly brought a whole city to ruin. With sirens blaring around every corner and mob violence in the streets, these fashionistos had way more than just the fashion police to worry about.
When it comes to dramatic outfits, few ensembles can outshine the zoot suit. These long, boxy, eye-catching numbers were all the rage in the 1940s. They also resulted in one of the bloodiest nights that Los Angeles has ever seen.
Zoot suits made a strong statement for urban pride. The style originated in Harlem’s jazz scene, where the wide sleeves and flowing fabric emphasized dance movements. Gaining popularity, the fashion spread to other communities.
Hispanic youths took to the zoot suits, though mainstream white society feared the style signified gang activity. This subculture — known as “pachuco” — only ballooned in controversy with one of the biggest events in American history.
On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced the United States would enter World War II after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. This conflict required great sacrifice from soldiers and civilians alike.
On the home front, families adjusted to the rationing of basic goods. Huge amounts of sugar, meat, and butter went to the war effort; fabric too became a scarcer good. In addition, anyone who didn’t enthusiastically cut down on consumption was viewed as unpatriotic.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops fought hard overseas. The government periodically brought them back on shore leave to let them unwind in between tours. Needless to say, these celebrations often went overboard.
In 1943, thousands of high-strung servicemen entered bustling Los Angeles. They hoped to blow off some steam with fun and romance during their break, but quite a few were also spoiling for a fight.
Navy partiers frequented the rowdy L.A. dance halls, full of pretty girls and music. Though they couldn’t help but sneer at the pachucos in their loud suits. Didn’t those delinquents, the sailors asked themselves, realize all that fabric should go to the troops?
One night in May, a couple of servicemen exchanged words with zoot-suited teenagers. It predictably ended in a scuffle, with one sailor winding up in the hospital. His outraged brothers-in-arms swore not to let that insult stand.
Word of the incident spread throughout the Navy ranks. By June, nearly every sailor in Los Angeles forgot about dancing. Their blood boiling, they had only one goal for the rest of their shore leave: revenge.
The enraged sailors called the pachucos a disgrace, with their flashy clothing and unfamiliar language. Some accused them of draft dodging, unaware that most zoot suiters were teenagers. But reason didn’t matter; the troops were out for blood.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
An angry mob of 50 servicemen roamed through Chinatown, many of them carrying clubs or improvised weapons. Each time they spotted a zoot suit, they set upon the unsuspecting victims in a drunken fury.
Mexican-American teenagers stood little chance against the sailors, who had numbers and the element surprise on their side. Some white civilians even joined in as the military men brutally beat and stripped every zoot suit in sight.
Harold P. Matosian
Chaos overtook Los Angeles. Brawls broke out all over the city, while soldiers proudly paraded with strips of clothing they’d torn off the pachucos. Wouldn’t anyone step in to restore order?
Police became aware of the situation only as the night’s violence was dying down. They pledged to tamp down on these Zoot Suit Riots, as the conflict came to be known. However, many Angelenos felt their solution was anything but just.
Instead of going after the instigators, police officers began rounding up Latino teenagers. They arrested hundreds with virtually no justification. Adding insult to injury, most American newspapers blamed the pachucos for the violence.
The inebriated servicemen faced no immediate consequences, though their superiors declared the Los Angeles off-limits to prevent further brutality. The broken city tried to piece itself back together as similar riots broke out in other urban areas.
Reddit / jecinci
Scores of young Chicano men languished in cells. With zoot suits now criminalized, they wondered if any establishment figures would come to their aid. Luckily, they had one sympathizer very high up in California’s ranks.
Governor Earl Warren — later a groundbreaking Supreme Court Justice — headed a committee that determined racism was the core cause of the Zoot Suit Riots. Though less progressive leaders tried to undermine him, Warren advocated peace for Los Angeles.
Even with the dust settling, the summer signified a huge blow for California’s minority communities. Many found themselves wounded, humiliated, and blamed for all the destruction. Still, the Zoot Suit Riots provided them with one silver lining.
The incident opened the eyes of zoot suiters and turned them into activists. American heroes like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez both counted the riots as a pivotal event in their lives, inspiring them to stand up for the rights of the oppressed.