307: 52 Cards

307: 52 Cards

Brain Junk
Brain Junk
307: 52 Cards

From poker to games played to pass the time, those 52 cards are so ubiquitous it’s hard to figure just when we started using them. We go all the way back to ancient China for a possible origin of cards.

images: Cloisters Deck from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and and example of cards from today from pixabay

Show Notes:

The strange coincidence of the Instagram guy & 52 card decks

Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Cloisters Playing Cards

Atlas Obscura: Playing cards around the world and through the ages

JSTOR: an excerpt from The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards

Wikipedia: Chinese Playing Cards


[00:00:03] Speaker A: Hey there. Trace here. So Amy and I have a couple projects coming up over the next couple months. She’s taking some classes. She’s got to do homework. I’ve got some projects, a fiction podcast that I’m working on writing, and a novel that I’m working on editing. And we need a little more space, a little more time. So we’re not stopping brain junk. Absolutely not. We love it too much to quit. But we are going to move to every two weeks instead of every week. So that means this week is an episode, and then we won’t have another episode until April 2. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get your brain junk fixed. We got lots of old episodes. You can head over to YouTube for the really old episodes. I’m slowly uploading more. We’re not going anywhere. We’re just going to dial it back a little bit for a little while. So enjoy this episode. Yeah, we’ll see you in two weeks.

Welcome to Brain junk. I’m Trace Kerr.

[00:00:59] Speaker B: And I’m Amy Barton. And today we’re going to talk about everything you never knew you wanted to know about playing cards.

Are you a card family? Like old school? Not like games, but the traditional four suit deck.

[00:01:16] Speaker A: Yeah, we are. Well, you know, it’s funny because I grew up as a card family. Chaz did not grow up as a card family. They were a scrabble family. And I have converted him to the crazy eights and the Kings in the know, the old people card games.

[00:01:32] Speaker B: Yeah. Yes. Now, I have never played kings in the corner. My family is a rummy family. I think there’s some cribbage in there, too, with the little pegs. Children were not allowed to touch that. I think it was an adult escape game because they played it out at the lake and they’re like, shouldn’t you guys be swimming? Grandpa’s out watching go swim, so I need to learn to play that one.

[00:01:55] Speaker A: Well, I can teach you how to play cribbage. Chaz and I play cribbage all the time. Neither of my children like to play cards, which is funny. It began and ended with us. That’s it. We’re done.

[00:02:05] Speaker B: Now.

It’s a generational thing in my family because my grandpa was a military fella for a long time, and so it was an officer’s. It’s a clubby thing. They would have card night. And so that filtered down into my parents play, and we play. Chris didn’t play as much, but the kids liked it when they could start playing with the grandparents, and Allie especially, can win.

[00:02:27] Speaker A: See, now, what you have to do is you get your children, because, like Beckett’s person, cam likes to play cards, and so you just have to make sure. You have to be like, are you nice to my child? Do you like to play, know, whatever the family thing is?

[00:02:40] Speaker B: Yeah. When it’s boring and rainy, what will we be doing?

So Chris saw a video on Instagram and immediately sent it to me, knowing it was all about cards. He’s like, knew I would enjoy it. The content creator. What do we call Instagram, people? The guy on Instagram, he was really good with cards and was smoothly shuffling the deck and laying them out and talking about the origin of cards, the standard modern deck that we use. So he said the 52 cards represent 52 weeks in a year. I was with him there. The black and red are the darkness of night, and the lightness of day are the two colors. 13 cards pursuit ace through king. For those who don’t get into a deck very often, they say that’s the 13 weeks of each season, and all of that adds up to 364, which is one day shy of a year. So you throw in a joker, and you get two jokers for leap year. This is the symbolism and the meaning of the cards.

[00:03:48] Speaker A: Now, is he the only one saying this?

[00:03:50] Speaker B: Or that is when he got to the joker thing. I’m like, I have never in my life seen a deck with only one joker.

[00:03:59] Speaker A: Right?

[00:03:59] Speaker B: I’m like, so I’m like, I believed you until that moment because it lines up so nicely.

[00:04:05] Speaker A: It does.

[00:04:06] Speaker B: Yeah. However, there is a great big butt here.

Those of you who have ever seen or touched a card deck or watched a movie with cards will note that they are paper. The troublesome nature of paper products historically is that they disintegrate very easily and the ink fades. And so there are card historians and scholars who say, this is a terrific story. It totally might be true, but we have no primary sources, and you really can’t put any stock in that. Don’t bet on any of that, because they just can’t prove it. That is a bit of a disappointment, but we can’t know because of all these things. So I’m going to tell you some of those things cards originate. I was curious. I thought they might be older than they are, and they certainly could be, but historians start seeing evidence of them between the 9th and 13th centuries, depending on who you consult and how loosely they define that. What is cards?

[00:05:08] Speaker A: That classic, that classic card kind of thing, the suits and everything.

[00:05:13] Speaker B: Would recognize as. And there are lots of permutations, as you might guess, that culturally and locationally, they’re just all different. One scholar said the amount of things, basic things that nobody knows about playing cards is astounding.

He says the playing cards are impressively undocumented. Like, nice. But I think that speaks to the nature of they are a thing of the people in many ways, because you can sit and spend ten minutes and make a deck of cards that’s usable. So historically, bored people probably did that. So origins, this is an asian origin. It did make its way over to Europe, but the first sightings are in Asia. And again, it’s one of those things that’s like, yeah, probably this is what happened. But the documentation is scarce. They generally assume China, Persia, India is where they came from, and that they probably came over during the Crusades, where people were mingling, different cultures were mingling. This is the episode, by the way, that I told you was my favorite because I was going to be extremely broad and very, like, I don’t know, that’s just the whole episode, so I’m super excited about it.

All I’m going to tell you guys for the next five minutes is maybe it’s hard to say, oh, do you want to go? I have a little side road in my notes right here. There’s chinese game called Yezigay, which translate to Game of leaves. And I didn’t look up a pronunciation, so that’s probably wrong. But it’s the first game to use playing cards that they can kind of say, yeah, this is truly a card game. And their references to it being played as early as the study found that there is no indication that the leaves actually referred to playing cards. And so this is this documented thing. It’s the first card game. And then in 2009, somebody went poking around. They’re like, are you guys sure this is cards? Because the leaves, they might actually have been the pages from the game’s instruction books. Oh, no. So the game may have used dice, as chinese games of the time often did. So nobody even seems to have even suggested that the game may have been a card game until the 15th century, which is right around the time that playing cards started to take off. So there was a lot of. I think this is a card game, right? Yes. It’s like a game of telephone.

So the earliest unambiguous record of playing cards was a police record from 1294. A couple of gamblers in Shendong, China, were arrested, and their cards and the printing blocks for those cards were confiscated. So that’s fun.

[00:08:04] Speaker A: You know, I feel like about as soon as people developed language, they figured out games of too. You know, rocks, stones, dice, cards. I’m sure that all came along very quickly.

[00:08:19] Speaker B: And I can see dice games prevailing. Yes. Because you could create them from a lot of materials, and they could rumble around in your pocket and get wet.

[00:08:29] Speaker A: And then you could just break them out and play.

I know. So here’s the question. The invention of a table is that when you have cards, you set it on a rock.

[00:08:42] Speaker B: Table and card, same time period.

[00:08:44] Speaker A: Exactly.

[00:08:46] Speaker B: It’s OG and grog. And they made it. Yeah. There are card size parchment deck that dates around the 13th century in a couple of museums, including the cure collection of islamic art in Dallas. But it’s not known for sure that they’re actual playing cards. They might have been like some guy’s grocery list or some other kind of notes on card sized things. So they totally could be cards. And as we’ve just talked about, I really do think they probably had cards much earlier than that. And then there comes the sandwich. Problem is a taco. A sandwich is a hot dog. A sandwich is a title game, a card game. Those are card shaped things. How thick does it have to become before it’s not a card game? So this is also a disputed thing among historians, which I did not go very far down that road.

[00:09:34] Speaker A: They’re like mahjong.

[00:09:35] Speaker B: Yes, that’s exactly the one.

[00:09:37] Speaker A: Not a card game. That’s a domino’s game. Right?

[00:09:41] Speaker B: Yeah. But is it like a rectangle and a square?

[00:09:45] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:09:47] Speaker B: So there’s great disputes hotly contended at the playing card conventions.

[00:09:52] Speaker A: I was just thinking in some sort of historical, archaeological thing, and two guys with glasses and lanyards throw down over dominoes versus cards.

[00:10:02] Speaker B: Yes, exactly.

So you start seeing formalized decks of playing cards. There is the cloister deck from the late 15th century, and it is in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. And they were able to identify that and date it. And it has 52 cards, four suits, numbers and face cards. So a true, what we modern people would say. I could play cards with that. Yes.

[00:10:26] Speaker A: Oh, but you know what? They’re ovals.

[00:10:28] Speaker B: Yeah. The shapes, over time, a little changey. I think squares and rectangles are easiest, but decorative cards.

[00:10:36] Speaker A: Wow.

[00:10:37] Speaker B: But there’s a few other decks that are of a similar vintage, and we’d recognize them as cards. So that oval shape. At first, cards were primarily for the rich. What we would formally say are cards. I suspect, again, other people had cards, but a beautiful hand painted deck with continuity and recognizable rules and traditions of this is what this king will look like were around before Gutenberg, but they were hand painted and might be really elaborate and used exotic dies and beautiful designs, but they require a lot less variation than a book. So you could whip a deck out quicker than you could do a book.

[00:11:17] Speaker A: Well, looking at the cloisters deck that you mentioned, yes, 52 cards, and they’re oval shaped. But the suits aren’t like, what we would think of as suits.

[00:11:27] Speaker B: No. It could be hunting dogs. It could be acorns, stags like fishing lures.

[00:11:33] Speaker A: Oh, is that what those are? Because one kind of looks like a whisk, one looks like a girl in a bonnet. I’m like, what am I even looking at?

[00:11:41] Speaker B: Yeah. The cloister duck in particular. They say hunty dog stags, lures, or that that might be of that era, were fairly common in other parts of Europe. You would see representations of the ruling families like a fleurtely in France. So at first, it was just four distinct suits, but they could be whatever you wanted. You could have squirrels and acorns and chipmunks and sunflower seeds, whatever your jam is and that you’re willing to illustrate.

But, of course, as we talked about something else, where pedestrianism, as people begin to communicate and cultures flow together more frequently, standardization occurs, and that happened earlier for cards. By the end of the 15th century, printing presses are starting to be a thing, and so cards were more available, and then you want some continuity so that you all can play the same game. So that’s kind of when the standard design and layout began to occur. And there were four prominent schools of card decks, the german, the Swiss, the French, and the Latin. But we’ve landed on the french deck, which has largely edged out the german deck. So those were the two longest contenders. It sounded like.

[00:12:51] Speaker A: Oh, different designs, different regional. Oh. And so then there was a battle. Okay. And the French won. Of course they did.

[00:12:57] Speaker B: Yeah.

So that’s what I know about playing cards now a lot more than I used to. My grandma used to have little, small decks that were, like, one by two inches, and I’ve got one that’s shaped like a surfboard.

One of the little decks had Mickey Mouse, and they’re probably pretty old because they’re older than me.

[00:13:16] Speaker A: We got a new set. Actually, Chaz got a new set of two packs of cards from a company called fan effinf and birds. They are wildly inappropriate. They have bird drawings and then lots of swear words. I’ll have a link in the show notes, they’re delightful. Although my mom was over and he was like, let’s play crazy eights. And I was like, not with that deck. Not with that deck.

[00:13:38] Speaker B: Grab a comfortable deck that we’ve broken in.

[00:13:41] Speaker A: Let’s get the ones that we’ve picked up for free from the casino that have been decommissioned. Those are good.

[00:13:48] Speaker B: My parents. Our favorite deck growing up was plastic, but one of the corners had broken it off and my mom attached it back with rubber cement or something, which was amazing that it stuck. So you always just sort of politely ignored that. So and so had the eight of spades or whatever it was. I was even going to say eight of spades. That’s so funny. I don’t know if I’m making that up or if that’s really what it was.

So that’s a fast, broad flyover of broad card ideas.

[00:14:16] Speaker A: I’m disappointed that the fellow’s Instagram explanation, those things where it’s like, why does this fit together so well?

[00:14:25] Speaker B: Yeah. And he could be right. He can just never win because he cannot until we find a primary source. That’s like, yes, he’s right.

[00:14:32] Speaker A: Yeah, it’s conjecture. And conjecture is fun. We love it.

[00:14:37] Speaker B: He’s winning Instagram on that one. We all believed him.

[00:14:40] Speaker A: That’s true. It’s like 2 million people can’t be wrong. Yes, you can. Check your sources.

[00:14:44] Speaker B: Exactly.

[00:14:48] Speaker A: Well, thank you for your reviews and comments. If you’d like to hear more episodes, ask your smart speaker to play brain junk. Also, we’ve put ourselves on YouTube, so if you like to watch an anime and listen to a podcast and do homework all at the same time on multiple monitors, you can do that now.

[00:15:07] Speaker B: Yes.

[00:15:09] Speaker A: Amy and I will catch you next time when we share more of everything you never knew you wanted to know, and I guarantee you will not be bored.

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