Women are buying the playing cards _ these days, and buying them in unprecedented numbers. One of the results, for better or worse, is that after several centuries of peaceful evolution there is now a sort of revolution in the design and decoration of what used to be a very simple piece of pasteboard. Walk into almost any store and you can now purchase the kind of lavish, spectacular, attractive and different decks of cards shown at left. The Cavendish Club may recoil in shock and bridge leagues be appalled, but the ladies are showing their hand.
There is a certain amount of historical irony in this, for one of the earliest records of the use of playing cards is found in a Chinese work of about 1120 A.D. It credits Emperor S'eun-Ho of Cathay with inventing cards for the purpose of keeping his concubines amused at times when the Emperor was otherwise occupied.
During most of the centuries intervening, it was men who bought and used cards. Except for an occasional fortuneteller, women rarely played until the 19th century. In all these years the evolution of the playing card was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and a sure road to business failure was to come up with a bright idea for change. It is only since women took their seats at the card table that a few major innovations have been tried.
On the theory that the Kaiser's unpopularity had doomed monarchy everywhere, World War I era playing cards were introduced with soldiers, nurses and sailors replacing the kings, queens and jacks. They didn't last. Soviet Russia found it far simpler to overthrow the entire Russian ruling class than to remove the royalty from the faces of cards. Every previous attempt to depose the legendary monarchs of the Houses of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs has had to buck such long-entrenched habits that sales have been made largely as souvenirs or curios.
Even some good ideas have failed. At least two attempts have been made to change clubs to blue and diamonds to orange, in order to make cards easier to sort and to help prevent mistakes in following suit. Where are they now? Round cards, popular more than 500 years ago, are back on the market again. About 40 years ago, when they were also reintroduced, expert cardplayers admitted they were easy to shuffle, deal, sort and read—and refused to play with them.
I confess to being responsible for at least two innovations and one story about cards. I had decks made with the point value shown under the indices of honor cards, so that bridge players could more easily count the point value of their hands. Nobody but beginners liked this idea, and not many will long admit to being beginners. I also designed cards with big indices, like those used in my TV show. These are now on the market generally and are fine for the nearsighted. They are also, no doubt, popular with those who like to get a look at their opponents' cards. It may be that they will catch on in some circles, especially for exhibitions. But I must report that the experts who use them on the show find them somewhat disconcerting.
My card story concerns the World Bridge Olympiad in Turin, Italy where, with the cooperation of the United States Playing Card Company, I was able to present 1,400 decks with my signature as a back design for use in the tournament. Now, playing-card manufacture in most European countries is a heavily taxed monopoly. So permission to bring the cards into Italy was granted only on condition that every deck be taken out of the country after the tournament.
It was assumed that it would be possible to present an occasional deck to those who wished souvenirs by bringing out of the country a few 50-or 51-card decks. But the Italian government had thought of that, too. It warned that it didn't want to count decks when we left, just aces of spades. Needless to say, all the decks that went into Italy were brought right back out.
High taxes and the monopolies on playing cards abroad are responsible for the invention of plastic cards, which have been on the market here since 1934. In Austria, where the plastic card was invented, the tax was so high that decks were manufactured oversize, with huge margins. When the edges got dirty the decks were trimmed down so that they could still be used. Even at their selling price of $10 per set, the plastic cards could have put quite a dent in the monopoly's business—so the latter quickly bought out the plastics manufacturer and his processes and scrapped the operation. The inventor came to the U.S., where he persuaded Ely Culbertson to put his cards on the market, and they have had some measure of success.
The "invention" that made a patent on the plastic card possible is closely tied to the reason why playing cards are called pasteboards. Nonplastic cards are printed on pasted-together boards, or sheets of paper; otherwise, if you sat with the light behind you your opponent could read your cards through the backs. Originally this problem was solved by pasting a sheet of brown paper between the two outer layers. Later the problem of translucency was resolved by the use of a black paste. The inventor of the plastic card created neither the plastic, nor, of course, the idea of the playing card. He simply created a way to make the plastic opaque.