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Fancy faces for a familiar deck
Charles Goren
September 17, 1962
It used to be that it was only the number of spots on the pasteboards that mattered, but the ladies have now become the principal buyers and users of playing cards, and some strange and exotic things have happened
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September 17, 1962

Fancy Faces For A Familiar Deck

It used to be that it was only the number of spots on the pasteboards that mattered, but the ladies have now become the principal buyers and users of playing cards, and some strange and exotic things have happened

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Opacity is only one of the difficulties in making what superficially appear to be very simple things. Pitfalls are numerous. There was, for example, the printer who thought he could revolutionize the industry. Instead of printing a full deck, or two full decks, on one sheet, as is normally done, he planned to print all of the aces of spades on one sheet, all of the kings of spades on another, etc. Then he would collate 52 sheets, and in one die cut he could get more than 100 decks.

Beating the sharpies

A few hundred years ago this scheme might have worked, since cards were printed on one side only and the backs were left white. Today, with the back design an important part of every card, the printer learned he could manufacture nothing but marked decks. No matter how carefully printed, the separate sheets would have gradations of color that would soon become apparent enough for the sharp player to "read" each card from the back. The problem of uniformity is so important that several years ago the United States Playing Card Company had to recall and destroy 300,000 decks. The back of one of the cards had been found to have a hairline imperfection.

Yet printing is a mild headache compared with the difficulty of cutting and assembling a deck. Since the deck is all on the same sheet, the sheet must be cut into strips and the strips fed through a kind of biscuit cutter that stamps out the individual cards. Simultaneously, the edges of each card must be pressed into a feather edge. This edge, invisible to the eye and scarcely perceptible to the touch, is the reason why the cards can be shuffled without fraying. The nature of the machines that do this work is among the most jealously guarded of trade secrets. There is no secondhand market; when the machines are scrapped, they are smashed with sledgehammers.

Recently one of the country's largest printers of greeting cards decided to bring out a playing card line and encountered two ambushes that prevented more than moderate success. The company imported its cards from West Germany. But the German cards, it found, had slightly different faces from American ones and, as we have said, card players don't relish change. Almost as important, the cards were a fraction of an inch wider than standard American decks. This meant they would not fit into duplicate-bridge boards.

Of all card games, bridge has had the widest effect on the playing card business, and not merely because of the volume of packs bought for that purpose. Bridge caused the width of cards to be changed from 2� to 2� inches, in order to facilitate the holding of thirteen cards—especially, one might add, in the smaller hands of women. And it was women who got bored with the conventional geometric designs that had been the bestsellers and still remain so in the gambling houses and the high-stake card clubs. That's why you can buy cards with Mona Lisa smiling from the back, or find yourself staring fixedly at a still life of pink asters as your partner takes you out of a business double.

Important, too, is the effect that bridge and women have had in giving the playing card new respectability. No longer called "the devil's picture book," rarely the object of religious sermons, the deck of playing cards has become part of the entertainment equipment in millions of homes.

Yet the grand old legends and the mystery still persist, relics of a day when cards were solely the implements of the fortune-teller and the gambler. The ace of spades remains the death card; the queen of spades is the dark lady; the four of clubs "the devil's bedposts," because it looks like the top of a fourposter. Finally, there is the nine of diamonds, called "the curse of Scotland," for any of half a dozen fanciful reasons, ranging from the possibility that it derived from the nine lozenges in the coat of arms of the Earl of Stair, loathed in Scotland for his connection with the Massacre of Glencoe, to the highly improbable theory that Cumberland, "the Butcher of Culloden," wrote the orders for that battle on the back of this card.

Now, that's about the only thing the ladies have not thought of putting on the backs of their cards—battle orders for a massacre.

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