Coincidence? Cards, Clocks, and Calendars

The History of the Ace of Spades

A Nice Arrangement

Coincidence? Cards, Clocks, and Calendars

A deck of regular playing cards contains fifty-two cards: thirteen cards in each of four suits. Most American playing cards come with one or two Jokers.

 2 The two colors on the faces (red and black), or the two sides of the card (front and back), symbolize day and night. 4 The four suits correspond to the four seasons. 7 Consider Ace as 1, Jack as 11, Queen as 12, and King as 13. The middle number between one (Ace) and thirteen (King) is seven, the number of days in a week. 12 The twelve court cards -- all the Jacks, Queens, and Kings -- correspond to the twelve months of the Gregorian calendar year or twelve zodiac signs in each year. The average value of all the court cards is twelve. There are twelve hours in each day and each night. There are twelve animals in the cycles of the Chinese calendar. 13 There are thirteen cards in each suit. In a lunar year, the moon goes around Earth thirteen times. Some earlier calendars, used at the times and places playing cards were probably invented, were based on a lunar calendar. There are thirteen weeks in each season. 24 Start with a full deck of cards without Jokers. Deal them all one by one into two piles, and then put the second pile on the first pile and start over. Do this a total of twenty-four times and the entire deck will be in the same order as it was before you started dealing. There are twenty-four hours in a day. 52 There are fifty-two cards in a deck and fifty-two weeks in a year. 365 Again, consider Ace as 1, Jack as 11, Queen as 12, and King as 13. If you add up all fifty-two cards in the deck you’ll get 364... plus one for a Joker is 365, the number of days in a year. Here is another way to get there: 4 = The number of suits (or seasons)7 = The average value of a card (or days in a week)13 = The number of cards in each suit (or months in the lunar calendar year)4 X 7 X 13 = 364... plus one for a Joker = 365, the number of days in a year. What if it's a leap year? Just add in the other Joker.

Time flies when you're having fun, like when you're watching CARD MAGIC.

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The History of the Ace of Spades,
a tale of currency and taxes

The standard deck of playing cards used today in the United States is mostly an evolution of decks that were brought from England, a country still ruled by a King or Queen. In a deck of American playing cards, the Ace of Spaces is often ornate in comparison to the other aces. In decks of playing cards from some countries, the Ace of Spades is not fancier than the other aces.

You would think from looking at a deck of playing cards that each ace would be the lowest card of its suit, as it has only one pip in its center. In a brand new deck, the order of the cards is standardized in a way that the aces are next to the deuces, as far away as possible from the suit's royalty: kings, queens, and jacks. In the modern, standardized deck, the first regular card at the face of the deck is the Ace of Spades.

Why and how did the Ace of Spaces become so fancy?

Why, in most card games, is an Ace higher than a King or Queen?

A deck of cards can be cut into pieces, perhaps mixed with others like it, and melded back together. The same thing can be said about a piece of metal. Metal has intrinsic value and can be formed into a convenient shape with imprinted details. Because of this, in early times metal was an obvious material for coins. Some metals had more value by weight than others. In the earliest use of metal for commerce, metal was shaped into bars without any official stamps indicating the pureness, quality, or precise weight. Of course, this lead to fraudulent activity, so mints were established to produce coins. The first metal coins were pieces of metal that were assessed, weighed, and stamped.

In ancient Rome, an "As" was a unit of weight, and copper was a material of choice for coinage. Around the first century AD (that's Anno Domini, not Ace of Diamonds), the “As” was a copper coin weighing about eleven grams (approximately the weight of an American "Kennedy" half-dollar), and it was the base single unit of currency. The “Ace,” being the number one in a deck of cards, has a name derived from that single unit, serving as a reference for the other cards in the suit.

Aces, circa 1920, Belgium
Note the "AS" on each card

Although no one knows for sure where and when playing cards were invented, most accounts point to either India or China. India's earliest cards were circular. In China, where paper was invented, the earliest cards probably resembled skinny dominoes or mahjong tiles. Playing cards have been in use for about 1000 years or possibly a lot longer. Likely, they were invented to play games. Maybe they were initially used by fortune tellers to divine the future or by magicians to entertain.

They were introduced to Europe during the 14th century from the Middle East. Initially, there wasn't a standard for what cards were in a deck. Yet some of these early packs already resembled modern-day pasteboards with fifty-two cards, thirteen in each of four suits. Some decks had suits of swords, cups, coins, and polo-sticks, whereas others, such as those from Germany, often had suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. The current suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs first appeared in France circa 1480. People brought these French cards to England, and our cards in the United States are based closely on those.

Just as there are taxes on the purchases of certain items these days, some earlier governments throughout Europe taxed the manufacturers and buyers of playing cards to collect extra revenue. Initially, the wrapper or seal on the deck bore an official government stamp, proving payment of the tax and guaranteeing the deck was new.

Written records indicate that in England, taxes on playing cards were raised in 1588, 1628, and several times thereafter. Over the years, playing card manufacturers made several appeals to the government regarding their loss of sales due to taxation. Imported playing cards were not subject to the same regulations. In 1643, playing card manufacturers posted their concerns on a broadside (the side of a ship, visible above the water line):

Order by Committee appointed by parliament for the Navy and Customs, on the complaint by the Cardmakers of London, likely to perish by reason of divers merchants bringing in Playing Cards into this Kingdom.

Merchants continued legally importing playing cards until 1684, when a public statement was sent from Whitehall Palace, the residence of the Court of London:

A proclamation prohibiting the importing of Foreign Playing Cards, and for seizing such as are or shall be imported.

Queen Anne was the monarch of England from 1702 to 1714. At the time, a deck of the highest quality cost about four pence, and a deck of the cheapest quality cost one halfpenny. During this time, the government proposed that each deck of cards would be taxed a duty of sixpence for the next thirty-two years.

The Cardmakers, along with the retailers and paper mills, petitioned against such an inordinate charge. One such request circa 1710 reads as follows:

Reasons Humbly offer'd by the Card-makers against the Tax upon Playing-Cards.

The Card-makers in and about the City of London are about One Hundred Master Workmen. For some time past (Paper having been double the Price as formerly) the trade is much Decayed.

The most they sell their Cards for to the Retailers (one sort with another) is Three Half-pence the Pack, and their Profit not above an Half-penny. So that the Tax intended will be double the value of the Cards and six times their gain.

The generality of the Card-makers are Poor men and out of the Small Gains above can hardly maintain their families: And therefore to impose a Tax to be immediately paid upon making by the Cardmakers (whose Stocks and Abilities are so very mean, that they now make hard shift to forebear the Retailers the Ordinary time of Credit) will be a direct way to Ruine these Poor Men.

Besides there is at present a Stock of Cards in the retailers hands sufficient for the consumption of Four or Five year; and they will assuredly sell all the old stock off before they take any at the New advanced rate: The consequence whereof will be:

First. That the Cardmakers till that stock be sold off can make no new ones.

Secondly. That during that time they and their Families must needs starve.

Lastly. That until the card-makers can make new ones no money can arise by such Tax.

Parliament was not swayed by this appeal. On June 11, 1711, the Act became law. Taxes collected were "for carrying on the war, and for her Majesty's Occasions."

From 1712 until about 1718, a “duty stamp” was placed on one card in each deck to prove that duty tax had been paid after the wrapper had been discarded. Initially, no standards specified which card would be stamped.

Duty stamp designs circa 1712  to 1718,
stamped onto one card, often an ace

Because the Aces had the most white space of any card, the duty stamp was usually made on one of them. The customary order of cards in a new deck has the Ace of Spades on the face (the top, if the deck is held face-up), so the Ace of Spades was the card most often stamped. The Ace of Spades was printed with a regular size pip in the center, and subsequently, officially stamped before sale. Some of the stamps had a round space that would encircle the center pip, while others had embellishments that may have somewhat obscured it. Despite this added fanciness, the aces (or in some decks of the time, the ones), remained the lowest rank in the deck for most card games.

In 1765, the Tax Office began printing Aces of Spades. Playing card manufacturers were not allowed to sell their own. It was a capital offense to forge an Ace of Spades. The designs for the various taxes, based upon the cost of the pack of cards, had an enlarged spade pip in the center of the design. The large spade both clearly identified the card as the Ace of Spades and became part of the official stamp design. This is how the Ace of Spades got a big spade in the middle.

Ace of Spades design circa 1765,
one of several printed by the Tax Office

Inequitable taxation and power struggles at this time in Europe were not limited to English Cardmakers. The French Revolution of 1789–1799 brought the bourgeoisie and proletarians in direct conflict against the monarchy. As a representation of the lower classes overthrowing the royalty, the lowly ace rose to power as the highest card in many games, outranking kings and queens. The ace now had additional significance for card players.

By 1825, playing card taxation in England had risen fivefold, and evasion was rampant. In 1828, the government lowered the tax from two shillings and sixpence (30 pence) to one shilling (12 pence) with hopes of retrieving more money. Aces of Spades were no longer printed by the Tax Office, but by Perkins Bacon on behalf of the Commissioners of Stamps. Because the duty was now charged on the card, and not on the wrapper, Aces of Spades were as official as currency. The central pip on the Ace of Spades was therefore much more sophisticated, with detailed drawings that looked as if they were on currency. Elaborations around the pip included a crown at the top, intricate circles, leaves, a lion, and a unicorn. This closely resembled the Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. Below the large emblem, the Ace of Spades was imprinted with the name of the manufacturer.

In the illustration shown here...

DUTY ONE SHILLING, at the top of the card, indicates the amount of the tax.

HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, in the center of the emblem, is a French term meaning, "Shamed be he who thinks evil of it." It is the motto of the Order of the Garter, the world's oldest national order of knighthood, and the pinnacle of the British honours system.

DIEU ET MON DROIT, at the bottom of the emblem, is the motto of British monarchs. It translates to "God and my right," and refers to the monarch's divine right to govern.

HALL & BANCKS, at the bottom of the card, was a playing card maker in London (on Piccadilly), 1821 to 1839.

Ace of Spades design circa 1828
(Design known as "Old Frizzle")

In 1862, the proof of duty was again reduced and moved back to the wrapper. Playing card manufacturers began printing their own ornate Aces of Spades, which often included their own name. They looked similar to modern-day Aces of Spades.

At about the same time, the United States began using Internal Revenue tax stamps on boxes or wrappers of playing cards.

United States Internal Revenue Stamp,
this type in use from 1940 to 1965
(from the collection of Rob Mendell)

Almost a century later, in 1960, the tax wrappers and duty were no longer collected in England. Five years later, the United States followed suit, abolishing the tax stamps, but the tradition of the fancy Ace of Spades is carried on to this day.

A Nice Arrangement

Arrange the fifty-two cards face-down in order from the top as follows:
the four Aces, the four twos, the four threes… all the way to the four Kings at the bottom of the deck. The ordering of the suits is irrelevant.

Hold the deck face down and deal cards one by one, face down, spelling aloud “Ace,” one card for each letter. As you deal the first three cards, say, “A – C – E” (one letter for each card). As you say “E,” the last letter of the value, deal the card face up. It will be an Ace. Continue, “T – W – O,” and on the “O” (the last letter) deal the card face-up. It will be a two, the value you just completed spelling. Continue, "T – H – R – E – E," and so on. Go all the way through the deck, spelling the values, dealing the last card of each value face up. Every time you come to the end of spelling a value, the card you deal face-up will match the value you just spelled. The last card you deal will be the last letter of “K – I – N – G.”

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