Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Indices on Playing Cards


Have there always been numbers on playing cards?

Triplicate or Squeezer?

The short answer is No. Originally there were no numbers on playing cards to indicate the value of the card. Suit symbols were very large and the pattern of pips soon becomes easily recognisable. But if you hold a hand of old playing cards without corner numbers you would soon see the problem. It's hard to hide your cards when you need to see almost the whole card to determine its value.

Cheating by glancing at your oppponent's hand was too easy. Nowadays we are used to fanning the cards very tightly with just the corner index showing. The card back I have illustrated on the left was designed to illustrate a rather bitter struggle in the 1870s with regard to solving this problem. The lower dog has a collar which reads 'Squeezer' and the other dog's collar reads 'Trip', his kennel is marked 'Registered 1877'. The dispute involves two American Companies. The New York Consolidated Card Company had invented the corner number idea and patented it. The cards could be 'squeezed' in the hand, ie tightly fanned and were sold as 'Squeezers', the name appearing on the Ace and boxes well into the 20th century.

Early index styles: a)Triplicate  b)Within-pip  c) Squeezer style

A rival company Andrew Dougherty had designed cards with miniature playing cards in the corner, the image thus appearing three times, once as the card and in two little cards on opposite corners. These were marketed as 'Triplicate cards'. A court case ensued and the two companies eventually came to an agreement by dividing up the country for their respective sales. The illustrated back (by NYCC) marks that agreement in 1877 with each dog chained to its 'home territory' - There is a tie that binds us to our homes. The three cards illustated above show also a very rare example of the numeral within the pip, a style that was used in England for a short time by De La Rue.

Cards without indices: a) c1805  b) c1870  c) c1875

The three cards illustrated on the right are examples of 19th century playing cards with square cut corners and no indices. Just one significant change has taken place during the 19thC and that is the double ending of the design, easily seen on court cards which used to be single standing figures, and in the 1875 example shown, pips have become double ended on English cards before indices are added. Double ended English court cards with one way pips generally date roughly from before 1875 - total accuracy on dating by this means is not possible as there are variations.

From the 1880s onwards cards generally have rounded corners and corner indices which start off quite small and become larger so that by the beginning of the 20th century the index is similar to today's style. But just because a card does not have indices does not mean it is 19th century as they were produced well into the 20th century for games like baccarat. There are many quite good facsimile decks with standing courts and no indices looking like early 19th century decks. You must use other clues like printing method and paper quality to distinguish between old and old-looking.
We take for granted the modern corner indices, but it wasn't always like this.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your research into the change over in marking cards. The period I talk to tourists about is from the end of the US Civil War till the OK Corral Shootout, Oct. 26, 1881. Most visitors have modern ideas, and are surprised to learn that things were not always so, and it's the 'little things' that have changed that are the most surprising.