Playing Cards, Greeting Cards And Other Paper Noveleties At Christmas, 1879

Historical Christmas Card

As for Christmas and New Year’s Cards, to say that their name is legion would be to use a very inadequate style of nomenclature. If I had, I won’t say a whole Christmas number, but a whole Christmas volume or two at my disposal, I might, perhaps, be able to deal with the subject in something like detail. As it is, I must just pick out a few of the more characteristic, a “specimen brick” or two from each elaborate house of cards.

Messrs. Dean and Son and Messrs. Rimmel seem to have laid themselves out more especially to meet the views of those with whom economy is perforce a chief consideration. A few small cards—one of them, by-the-way, very pretty, with shiny blue forget-me-nots on rice paper—two or three cheap paper boxes of scent, a folding paper almanack with grotesque French figures, and a plaster-of-Paris lobster with a pill-box in his stomach containing a tiny bottle of scent, seem to constitute the contributions of the latter firm to the extravagances of the season. The former would appear to have been more inventive, having achieved the origination, not only of a novel idea in cards in the shape of a large silver initial letter prettily decked with flowers, but of some new games with cards. Not common wicked playing-cards, you will understand, but cards of that typo beloved of schoolgirl circles, to many of which the new games of Snip Snap and A Friendly Party, the Bouquet Game and Fan and Flirtation, will afford plenty of harmless amusement daring the long winter evenings.

Next comes the contribution of Messrs. Atterton and Mills, who have a very pretty taste in tender greens and blues; the apple blossom exterior of one large folding card, and the graceful trellis-work of some climbing plant, of which my botanical knowledge does not supply the name, which decks the interior of another called “A Message through the Snow,” being specially noteworthy. The lines too which accompany them are above the average.

Messrs. S. J. Saunders, on the other hand, appear to have a speciality for choice pale greys and fawns for their backgrounds, whereupon gleam rich red and yellow roses and brilliant butterflies, and delicate quaker grass, and feathers from the wings of fairy birds. Inventive, too, are Messrs. Saunders, as is shown by the pretty little flower fan that opens out, as Cis delightedly observes, “when you pull him tail;” and an elegant little group of birds, that “cheep and twitter” when pinched artfully in the right place. But the gem of their collection is decidedly that delicious little group ‘of the handsome tabby mamma and her round-eyed little family, neatly mounted on a gold card, and itself quite one of the best oleographs I have ever seen.

In Mr. Goode’s liberal hands the ordinary Christmas greetings assume rather the form of elaborate Christmas Valentines —rich-scented sachets, in gorgeous array of white satin and purple velvet, glowing with bright flowers and gay plumaged birds, and sheeny with a profusion ‘of glittering silver lace that makes the very snow seem dusky and the moonlight dull white.

Mr. Bennett presents himself before us with an exceedingly pretty and really very appropriate novelty in the shape of a set of cards of various patterns, ingeniously besprinkled with a sort of glittering powder, which admirably imitates the effect of hoarfrost. The result, in the wintry scenes especially, is excellent.

Mr. Daniel, on the other hand, gets the brilliancy of his effects from glowing tints and golden backgrounds. Quaintly grotesque, too, are some of his designs, as witness the young Puck of four years old, holly-branch in cap, and toys in either hand, riding triumphant through golden space on a glorified cabbage-leaf. Or, again, prettily fantastic, as in this whole series of baby idylls, where coquettish little ladies and gallant little gentlemen play through their little serio-comedy of baby-lifo under the burnished golden sky, and the dapper little robins chirp at them from out the crisp whito snow.

Mr. Sulman also cultivates the fantastic element, which is not often, for instance, more daringly represented than by this double-jointed Japanese damsel, who so skilfully balances on her uplifted toe the circular tablet which conveys the sender’s wishes for ” a happy new year.” Mr. Sulman, too, besides an unusually rich and artistic collection of birds, flowers, and other subjects of the more ordinary class, has introduced a nautical type which would appear to be peculiarly his own; and which, besides being admirably executed, must have in many cases a special appropriateness.

Perhaps, though it is in some cases hard to choose, Messrs. Marcus Ward’s are, on the whole, the most attractive of all. Here, for instance, is one charming little “triptych,” with its solemn procession of tiny men and women filing daintily past against the golden background and singing as they go, both words and music being given at the foot. Here is another, similar in form, but with a glorious group of flowers in the place of the procession. Here is a tiny Japanese cabinet with its quaint gold and silver pattern on its black ground; here a dapper little baby-lifeguardsman of fifty years ago; here a lifelike group of sheep ruefully wishing each other a merry Christmas in the snow; or Tabby Tom picking his cautious way along the snow-laden trunk of a fallen tree with unexpected greetings for some too jovial sparrow singing unguarded carols among the leafless boughs. To one of the series there must surely be some story attached into the confidence of which the public is not taken. A coquettish damsel in dainty cap and apron, short skirts, aud dapper crimson stockings, leans thoughtfully on the handle of her broom ; and at the back is the legend:

Oh, «hen I am sweepping—sweeping,

My heart goes into a song,

And I fancy that I am breaking

All the fetters that do you wrong.

I am sweeping away tho dreamlights

That dazzle your waking eyes;

I am scattering all the shadows

That keep you from winning the prize.

I am keeping away the troubles

That hinder and fret the soul,

And am making a fresh fair pathway

To take you straight to the goal.

And so at last I come to the last batch upon my list, and find that in their preparations for Christmas Messrs. Delarue and Co. do not confine themselves to mere cards, but provide more substantial articles for the season’s greetings. Some of the former, indeed, are very pretty; notably some exquisitely pale green cards with delicious little groups of birds fluttering irresponsibly in mid-air or among graceful sprays of flowers. The curious Peacock Cards, too, are a happy combination of the quaint and the gorgeous. But Messrs. Delarue’s chief strength is in their natty almanacks and diaries; their neat little morocco calendars to stand on your writing table and prevent you from misdating your letters; their compact little “finger almanacks,” neatly packed away in a natty little Russian leather card-case, half the size of that required for your visiting tickets; their gorgeous satin-lined purses; their useful desk-diaries, and calendars of all sizes and designs for wall, or table, or pocket. Handsomer or more tasteful presents it would be hard to choose for Christmas or for any other time.

Certainly this matter of pretty and useful presents is ordered a good deal better in this present year of grace than in those far-off days when people gave us gifts, and we liked them, ugly as they generally were, more than we like most things nowadays.


How many English families and social gatherings play at round games of cards about Christmas-time, would puzzle all our wise men to determine. Little, however, do card-players know of the many points of curious interest connected with these pieces of thickened paper.

Dr. “Willsher, who has prepared by authority a description of the extensive and valuable collection of playing-cards in the British Museum, reminds us that five hundred years have passed away since what may be called the positive history of such cards commenced.

“We now find them spread all over the world, and forming one of the most seductive allurements of all classes of society. The hold thus widely and strongly secured depends, no doubt, on the varied and ready way in which cards may be made to administer both to lawful amusement and to that which is condemned as the exciting vice of gambling. The vicissitudes of chance have ever had a powerful hold on mankind.”

These vicissitudes, as we all know, lead by a well-beaten path to gambling. The convenience of cards for use is one of the reasons why they are so much adopted in playing games of hazard. They appeal, moreover, to a class of combinations

Christmas card with a hand of cards and two lines of greeting.</p><p>Chromolithograph

and calculations quite beyond the range of dice and dominoes; while at the same time they may be made to afford, in a simplicity of use, amusement and excitement to illiterate persons, and, by a more complicated application of powers, a pastime to more cultivated intellects.

Three theories are afloat concerning the origin of playing-cards. First, that they had their birth in the East, whence they were brought to Europe. Secondly, that no satisfactory evidence exists to show that they were ever anything else than of European origin. Thirdly, that although there may be sufficient evidence that they were of very ancient origin in India and China, European nations probably invented them independently, without borrowing from the East.

As the learned pundits are no tagreed on this knotty question, we may pass it by—simply remarking that unquestioned specimens are extant dated as far back as the middle of the fourteenth century. The British Museum Collection is valuable for archaeological study, irrespective of mere amusement. It comprises packs of cards, and portions of packs, of English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, Hindoo, and Chinese origin. Dr. Willsher, who prepared the descriptive catalogue by order of the trustees, has added coloured representations of some of the cards, obtained by Goupil’s photozincographic and polychrome process.

Few of us are aware that the old playing cards were more numerous and more complicated than those with which we are now familiar. Many of them, now wholly disused in Europe (except possibly among gipsy fortune-tellers), were called Tarots they were nsed for divination long before their combination with number or numeraI cards (pip-cards, as we usually call them), and long before either were used for gambling. There were generally twenty two tarots in the ancient packs, usually emblazoned with whole-length figures or other symbolical emblems of various conditions of life, or vicissitudes contingent to human nature. Some packs comprised tarots only, and ranged to forty or fifty in number. They were mostly numbered at the top, and inscribed at the bottom; the inscription being more frequently in French than in any other language.

By about the end of the fourteenth century, the two kinds began to be combined in one pack for purposes of amusement, more frequently than for fortune-telling or for gambling. One combined pack described by Dr. Willsher contains emblematical figures of a pope, an emperor, a king, a jester, the sun, the moon, temperance, and many other personified subjects; together with a few depicting the danger and bad effects of gambling. In addition there are sixteen of what we should now designate court-cards, and four suit or number cards of ten in each suit.

In playing with compound packs the tarots were superior in power to each and all of the other cards, and had also some kind of precedence among themselves, difficult now to determine. Venice appears to have set the example of using seventy eight cards altogether, tarots and the others combined. Then followed Spain, France, and Germany, each making many alterations, mostly in the number of tarots. By degrees players wished for a smaller total number of cards in each pack; and the makers accordingly got rid of the emblematical tarots representing the virtues, &c.

There are many varieties of size and shape in the old cards. Some are nearly square, some very oblong, but nearly all stiff and inflexible. The French have in most ages adopted smaller cards than ourselves. One pack, specially described, less than two inches long by one inch in width, are made of such delicate cardboard that the whole pack could be slipped into a glove, or held concealed in the palm of the hand. Hindoo and Persian cards, quite circular, two inches and a half in diameter, are extant. One dainty little pack has been made in thin sheet silver, not larger than a lady’s finger-nail. Among the engraved figures on a pack of tarot-cards in the British Museum, one represents La Papesse, or Pope Joan—a female occupant of St. Peter’s chair whose real existence was once believed in, but who is now consigned to the limbo of exploded traditions. Other tarot figures, briefly adverted to above, were emperors and empresses,betrothed lovers, charioteers, wheels of fortune, hermits, the devil with a pair of imps, the Last Judgment—three nude figures rising from graves, and looking up to a radiant being. What part such cards could subserve in necromancy or divination it is not difficult to see. One old German pack, with Latin inscriptions .at the top and German at the bottom, includes a queer tarot-card representing a man in a drunken sleep after dinner, and a woman lifting to her lips a flagon of half-gallon capacity—doubtless a pictorial stab at the vice of tippling.

The suits which are now so important in a pack of cards have incidentally been noticed; but something more is necessary to be said concerning them. The suits from the very first appear to have been four in number. In Italian cards they have usually been called coppe, danari, bastone, and spade; that is, acorn-cups, coins, clubs or batons, and swords. Hearts and diamonds afterwards superseded acorncups and coins. The French, so early as the middle of the fifteenth centnry, had ccours, carrianx, trefles, and piques, pretty much as at present; and these designations, with the requisite translations in languages, gradually spread from one country to another; but Germany long retained herzen, schellen, laube, and eicheln—hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. The names for our clubs have been more numerous than for any other of the suits—trofle, fioro, palos, kreuze, in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. There was something like a distinction into two groups in the character of tho suits: i.e. southern, comprising Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and South Germau; and northern, comprising French, Swiss, and North German ; but the classification is not very well sustained.

More curious are the details of information concerning the honours or courtcards—those pictures so marvellous in their absurdity. In the first place we must state that the modern king, queen, and knave were never regarded as tarots; they always belonged to the larger number of cards which were not tarots. The knight or cavallo used to be represented on horseback.

The Spaniards, not willing to admit a lady in the pack, withdrew the queen, and had first and second knights, one of whom was cancelled when the court-cards in each suit were reduced to three in number. The Germans had at one period upper servant and lower servant as two of the designations. For two centuries or more the French were accustomed to print under each court-card the name of tho personage it represented—such as Alexander, Pallas, Judith, &c. This was at a time when a resemblance to some real persons was attempted; but by degrees came into favour those specimens of the grotesque in gesture and costume which have continued ever since in English cards, and to a great degree on tho Continent. The double bust in some modern cards, intended to facilitate identification by the players without reversing the position of the card in his hand, is still more extravagant and absurd.

Skilful artists were occasionally employed to design and paint the honour cards. Specimens are still preserved, remarkable for the grace and delicacy of the figures, and the good taste of the decorative ornaments which encircled the centre picture. It is on record that Filippo Visconti, Duke of Milan, as much as four centuries and a half ago, paid fifteen hundred pieces of gold for a pack of cards painted with allegorical figures of the gods, and emblematical figures of animals and birds. Packs painted wholly by hand were produced in England so late as the end of the last century.

The king has been known by the proper characteristic designation in the several countries of Europe—such as roi, rej, re, king, konig, kong. The queen, as stated above, has for some reason or other not been much sanctioned iu Spain. The Germaus, as we have said, at one time used obermann, or upper servant, instead of queen. As to the third member of the honour or court-card group, he has been known by the diverse names of fante, soto, untermann, valet, jester, knave, and jack …..

Facts of a most curious kind are on. record concerning the court-cards or honours in France, during the eventful series of years when king, republic, and emperor took tho lead in turn. In effacing the signs and emblems of royalty at the commencement of the Revolution,i the change did not destroy the passion for play, either in intention or in effect. By j granting freedom of trade to ttie card- 1

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PACKS OP CARDS, OLD AND NEW. »member28,wrs.] 41

makers (the manufacture having been till then a state monopoly), more facilities for play than ever were afforded. Bat the passion for persecuting royalty extended to bits of pasteboard as well as to more important matters; kings and queens of all the suits were proscribed. The kings were supplanted by sages, savans, and emblematical personages; the queen had to make room for ladies emblematical of freedom of marriage, of worship, of the press, and of commerce; while the valets or knights were displaced by Roman heroes, warriors, and even sans culottes, according to the taste of the artist. When the military achievements of the first Napoleon had given a new turn to the revolutionary fever, card-players evinced a revived liking for the old-fashioned court-cards. Napoleon, when he became emperor, turned his eagle glance to the pictures on playing-cards as well as to the conquest and annexation of kingdoms. The painter David was commissioned to prepare new designs; and during a few years many artistic packs were produced. For some reason or other, those designs did not become popular; card-players asked for the old patterns, and their demand was complied with.. The Bourbons, after the fall of Napoleon, had little ether alteration to make in the current style of playing-cards than substituting the fleur-de-lys of their house for the eagle of the empire. Some attempts have been made in France during the last sixty years to introduce new and more graceful designs, but in vain; tho winners of four by honours at whist still cling fondly to their dear old absurdly grotesque picture cards. The backs are often very beautiful in colour and artistic in design; but king, queen, and knave retain their nondescript character.

Over and over again have attempts been made in England, as in France, to wean card-players from their odd and old preferences in this matter. Large sums of money have been expended in obtaining improved designs, and improved arrangements for engraving and printing them. Bat all in vain; public taste is obstinate, and card-makers preforce bow to it. . . . . .

Source: All the year round, 1879

Charles Dickens

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