Forgotten people have interested me for many years. Looking back I realized it all started in 1968. That was when my Uncle Earl handed me a single sheet of paper with a hand-drawn family tree on it. At that time I didn’t even know who my great-grandparents were. Or even know anything about my family history. As my uncle slowly turned over the role of family historian to me, that tree grew into thousands of forgotten people and their stories. Without having that curiosity about my past, and learning how to research the information these stories would be lost forever.
This research experience came into play when my son, The Congress Guy, asked me to help find the location of the National Playing Card factory in Indianapolis where we live. So, using the address stated in the Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards I started the search using my genealogy skills. As it turned out the address listed was incorrect. After finding the correct location, I realized I had even passed by the old factory during my lifetime quite a few times. Unfortunately, it’s now gone and has been replaced with an apartment complex.
It was then that I went with my son to our first 52+Joker Convention to pass along my discovery to other playing card enthusiasts. At that 2017 convention in Erlanger, I became hooked on playing cards and joined.
But, it was the history that has come to fascinate me. Who were these people that made these interesting items? What was the story behind them and their cards?
My research ended up with me writing stories about these people for the 52+Joker club magazine and then creating websites to share the information with others.
Ah, the sweet smell of a brand new deck. There it is, a fresh arrival in the mail, now waiting on your kitchen table. It is taunting you in its shiny cellophane, begging to be opened. Inside, as you know, is the joy of discovery, the smell of newness, the feel of brand new playing cards, and the promise of future experiences. You can hardly wait!
But do you need to break in your new deck first? If you want the handling to be smooth, are there any special steps you need to take to get your deck into optimum working condition for peak performance? And if so, what is the right way to do that? In this article, we’ll consider and explore this topic.
DO YOU EVEN NEED TO BREAK IN A DECK?
Whether or not you even need to break in a deck depends on a number of factors.
1. Are you a professional magician, about to perform a gig?
If so, then it’s not likely that you want your first experience with a new deck of cards to be on stage in the middle of a performance or when you’re on stage. Ideally, you’ll want to have at least given it a short test drive in advance, just to make sure it feels right, and has that gently worn and familiar feeling, so that it won’t cause any issues during your performance. The last thing you want is a couple of cards to be stuck together, or to find some other issue with the deck.
Obviously magicians won’t want to perform with a tired and worn deck that is full of grime, because it makes a poor impression, so it is professionally important to use a deck that is brand new or near new. But when using that new deck, you don’t want to have to worry about a less than optimal performance, so you do want it handling as best as it can from the moment your performance begins. You certainly don’t want to be spending precious minutes fiddling with cellophane wrappers, or getting rid of the standard “new deck order”. And are the cards too stiff? Too slippery? These are the two main issues you may find with a new deck, and are the kinds of things that you can address by breaking in a deck.
For many professionals, it will be a personal thing as to whether or not a deck performs exactly the way you want fresh out of the box, or whether you prefer the slightly different handling that results from a slightly worn deck. But for the rest of us, unless our first drive with our deck is at some official event, the need to “break in” a deck is much less necessary. It will get broken in naturally simply by using it, so just go right ahead and put it to work. It’s not like some new car that you need to handle gently for the first few kilometers, nor are you like a test pilot nervously taking a brand new plane on its first flight. Little can go wrong, and if you just use the deck for what it is intended for, everything will work out fine.
2. Who is the publisher, and what kind of deck is it?
Decks from some publishers will perform just beautifully straight out of the box, and this can also depend on the card stock that is used. Many cardists like using a deck that feels soft, and typically a deck will become softer by sheer use, as pressure is applied to the cards in the course of shuffling and handling. A USPCC deck with their “Thin-Crush” stock will have this feel immediately from the box, whereas a deck with their thicker and higher grade Casino Bee stock may require some wearing in before the cards feel softer. The B9 True Linen stock from Cartamundi also has a very soft feel from the box as well, and many cardists will just love how this feels from the get go. In contrast, LPCC/EPCC decks with the Diamond/Master Finish will have a much stiffer feel from the outset, and this sense of snap and firmness isn’t likely to change much despite intense use of the cards, given that these are intended to be much harder wearing and longer lasting cards.
All this means that whether or not there’s a need to break in a deck can depend on how it handles straight out of the box, which can vary according to the publisher and the kind of deck it is. So let’s talk about the typical USPCC deck a little more, since that represents by far the majority of decks. Decks with their standard Bicycle stock and with their higher grade Casino Bee stock will both become softer over time, so it can be helpful to wear these in if that is important to you. This is largely a process that will occur naturally as you use the cards, so there’s no need to artificially wear them in as such. But if it is very important to you that all the cards arrive at the same degree of softness at the same time, you might want to systematically go through a series of moves that puts all the cards through their paces in the same way.
Certain decks will also be more slippery when they are first used, which is a result of the coating on the cards. Some use will see this wear slightly, and the cards won’t quite slide as freely as they did initially, which is another reason some magicians will want to break in a deck first. On the other hand, other decks may perform worse over time, although this will largely be with decks from inferior publishers. These may appeal to spread and fan smoothly immediately from the box, but over time can quickly start clumping and be inconsistent.
3. How do you like your deck to feel and perform?
For most people, a deck will slowly change its feel as it gets used. In some cases, a deck may perform worse as it wears, and fans and spreads that were initially super smooth and consistent may start becoming clumpy or less than optimal. But generally speaking, as a deck becomes slightly softer it can become more pleasant to use, and sometimes this can even mean that fans and spreads can improve. It also can become less slippery, and the cards will actually spread and fan a little more consistently and pleasantly.
One thing about USPCC produced cards is that the edges of the cards can be somewhat rough after the cutting process. You can feel this by running your hand alongside the edge of a brand new deck, especially if you compare it to the super clean and smooth cut of a LPCC/EPCC produced deck. This will wear smoother with time, but there are things you can do to speed up this process.
To summarize, a deck that has been worn in slightly will generally perform better than a brand new deck – although there are exceptions. Cards will be less slippery, and spread evenly and smoothly, springs will be easier due to the cards being softer, faros will be more consistent (in both directions), and packets and double lifts can be formed more cleanly. This will happen naturally over time with any deck, so in many cases you don’t need to do anything special – just go ahead and enjoy the cards, and they’ll wear in automatically as you use them. But sometimes you do want to accelerate that process for performance reasons.
HOW SHOULD YOU BREAK IN A DECK?
So suppose we do want to break in our deck, how should we go ahead doing that? Let’s imagine that our deck is still staring at us from the kitchen table, grinning at us from within its cellophane. So let’s begin right at the start of the whole process, and list some steps that we can do.
Step 1: Preparation
So what do we need to get started?
● Be clean. You didn’t see that coming did you? There you were, with your grimy hands, all ready to rip into your brand new deck, and you almost forgot this important step! Go ahead and wash your hands – and dry them thoroughly! The oil on your hands, and any grime that might be invisibly clinging to it, will quickly transfer to your brand new cards, and before you know it they will start looking grimy as well. So it’s important to get rid of any sweat, dust and dirt that your hands might be carrying, and give your new deck the very best start it can, rather than throwing mud at it on its first test drive!
● Get your tools. Don’t worry, you won’t need a hammer or any heavy equipment! But a sharp knife will come in handy shortly, in order to do a neat and tidy job of opening the seal.
Step 2: Opening the Tuck Box
You didn’t really think that the cards magically pop out of that wrapped box do you? This process involves several steps:
● Cellophane. We begin by opening the cellophane, or shrink-wrap as it’s sometimes also called. Rather than ripping this from the top or bottom, I usually like to pull the tab provided for this around the deck. What this does is divide the wrapper into two halves. I typically remove the smaller top half, but leave the larger lower half on the deck. This provides additional protection to the tuck box, helping it stay in shape, and preventing the corners from becoming dinged up or tearing. But not too much can go wrong when removing the cellophane – unless you’re using a knife, in which case be careful that the sharp blade doesn’t slip and leave an unplanned but permanent tattoo on your skin or on the tuck box!
● Seal. Now for the seal, which is the adhesive sticker on most decks that keeps the deck closed and needs to be opened in order to open the top flap. Again, there are wrong ways to do this. Rather than just tear this in any fashion, I like to preserve the seal as best as possible. With a custom deck, the seal has often been thoughtfully and deliberately designed with unique artwork to fit with the rest of the deck, and it’s nice to preserve as much of that as possible. Cutting it parallel with the top of the deck along the upper flap is less than ideal, because it means you’ll invariably have part of the sticky side of the seal facing inwards, where it will occasionally attach itself to a playing card, and over time accumulate dust and dirt. Instead, it’s often best to get a sharp knife, and cut the seal right along the semi-circle shape. In a pinch, you can use a thumb nail to do this. But the result will be very neat and tidy: when the tuck box flap is closed, you’ll see the two parts of the seal come together in entirety, and there’s the added advantage that you won’t be leaving any sticky surfaces around to attract grime.
● Top flap. Ideally you want to bend the top flap backwards. There is usually a line about 1cm below the top flap, which has been pressed into the deck during production, and that’s where you want to bend the top flap backwards – not at the very top of the deck itself. What this does is reveal the top centimeter of the cards, making them easy to grab. If you don’t do this, and the cards are somewhat of a tight fit in the tuck box, you may find yourself butchering the top of the case trying to get the deck out.
Step 3: Removing the Cards
Wait, do we really need a whole step that explains how to remove the cards from the tuck box, and do I really think you have an IQ lower than an Ace of Spades? I’m sure you’re bright enough – after all you’re reading this! – but the truth is that you can butcher this part of the process as well.
● Take out the cards. If you have pushed back the top flap at the line described in the previous step, you should be able to get your fingers on both sides of the top of the deck. The most natural way to do this is to have your thumb on one side of the deck in the semi-circular thumb tab (another reason for not cutting the seal directly across the top!), while your forefinger grabs the other side of the deck along the top centimeter of the cards that has been revealed when you bent the top flap of the tuck box backwards. Now you can just pull the cards out, but even that can be a little tight at times. Get gravity to help, and tip the box over, so that the cards fall naturally into your hand. Don’t forget to inhale that new deck smell – that’s not something you want to miss is it? Breathe in deeply, and smell those new cards – you know you want to! This is also a good time to remove the ad cards, so that what you’re handling is a 54 card deck without unnecessary extras.
● Smooth the edges. In the case of a USPCC produced decks, the edges of the playing cards of a brand new deck will feel noticeably rough. While this can improve over time, you might want to take your deck and rub all four sides a number of times against some fabric – denim jeans are perfect. This will remove any loose bits and can help reduce some of the roughness.
Step 4: Conditioning the Cards for Optimal Friction
Some swear that there’s a particular order of steps that must be followed when breaking in a deck in terms of how you handle the cards for the first time once they’re outside the box. Personally I fail to see how the order of what follows matters too much – although I wouldn’t begin with a riffle shuffle or spring for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. So here are the moves you should consider doing to make your cards perform better than when you have them in your hands for the first time.
First of all, you want to give your cards a workout to help ensure optimal friction. These first moves are geared to ensure that the cards slide smoothly over each other. Cards have a coating that is designed to optimize how they glide over each other, but in the factory the cards have just been produced and never actually rubbed over each other, so there may be some small imperfections. We want to make sure that with the help of some warmth, wear, and pressure, everything is in good order and sliding smoothly and evenly. A helpful way to think of this is that you are polishing the cards by rubbing them against each other.
● Overhand shuffle. Shuffle off all the cards one at a time, to ensure that all the cards move freely, and there are no clumps of cards sticking together. It’s important to make sure that all the cards are properly separated.
● Wash. At this point some people recommend “washing” your cards. No, don’t get out the soapy water! A wash refers to spreading all the cards on the table, crudely overlapping each other, and shuffling them around over each other. The term “granny shuffle” is also used for this method. Personally I think that a systematic series of overhand shuffles accomplishes the same thing, is neater, and does a better job of looking after your cards, but you might find it more satisfying and effective to give your cards a “wash” as just described.
● Fan. A few fans are now the order of the day, in both directions. The idea of this and the previous step is that you get the cards sliding over each other every which way.
If you did the above steps face up, now repeat them face down. This ensures that each card has gone through its paces in each and every direction, from both sides.
Step 5: Conditioning the Cards for Optimal Flexibility
But cards don’t only need to slide over each other smoothly, they also need to be able to flex in different directions. If they were stiff and rigid like wooden boards, there’s no way you could handle them at all, so we want to make sure that they are malleable and soft. That’s something that the printing process won’t do for us by bending them in different directions to soften them up, but fortunately it’s something we can easily do, by giving the cards a workout to help ensure optimal flexibility.
These next moves are geared to ensuring that the cards flex properly, and return back to their natural shape easily and quickly. I strongly suggest doing these steps after the ones just described to get optimal friction, because when sliding the cards across each other, you don’t want them to be previously bent as a result of riffle shuffles or springs. Although if you find that your deck is warped out of the box, these flexibility routines will help straighten it out, so you may need to adjust the order of things.
● Aeration. This is simple and interesting “flex-ercise” in which you hold the deck similar to the beginning of a spring, squeezing both ends towards each other. This causes the deck to bend into a C shape, and you’ll notice the cards all separating from each other with a layer of air between them. This helps separate the cards, and helps prevent the oil or coating causing them to stick together. Do this in both directions.
● Riffle shuffle. Now it’s time for a good riffle shuffle, since not only do you want the cards sliding smoothly over each other, but you also want them flexing nicely. Do this both face up and face down, completing each shuffle with a bridge, so you don’t end up with bent or warped cards, and so that the cards are flexed in both directions.
● Faro shuffle. Another good move to do at this point is a faro shuffle. Given the new deck order, the central place that splits the deck exactly should be even easier than usual to find – for most standard decks it will be right between the King of Clubs and King of Diamonds. You can complete the shuffle by bridging the cards, or by cascading the cards together if you know how to perform that flourish. A faro shuffle will also tell you immediately whether or not a deck has a traditional cut or a modern cut, depending on which way you need to weave the cards together for the faro shuffle.
● Spring. Just like a riffle shuffle, a couple of good springs will help, and be sure to do these in both directions (face up and face down).
To round things off, you might want to conclude with another series of overhand shuffles, just to make sure that the factory coating has had another pleasant polish and final warm up, so that it can behave optimally.
In most cases, for the average person anyway, there’s no real need to artificially “break in” a deck. Just go ahead and use it! How it will handle and feel will change naturally over time, and as long as it’s a good quality deck, often this may make the handling smoother and better.
But if you’re a performing professional, it may be important to make sure that a deck is in optimal handling condition ahead of a performance. In that case you will want to put a new deck through its paces before using it for the first time on the stage. Usually the best way to do this is by a systematic series of shuffles, fans, spreads, and springs, as described above, to break the cards in faster, and to ensure that they have optimal friction and flexibility ahead of your performance. It’s not a complex process, and simply spending 10 minutes with your deck in this way should do the trick.
For most of us, none of this really matters enough, and wearing in a deck is what happens automatically as we use it. Even so, it is good to be aware of how to treat a deck well, and be familiar with some of the things you can do to help give your playing cards that familiar feel, and ensure that they won’t let you down. Treat your cards right, and they’ll treat you right!
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, and collecting playing cards.
This article is the next installment of a two-part series about how playing cards were used in different ways in previous centuries. Before our modern deck obtained its traditional look, playing card decks were often highly customized, and used for a variety of different purposes. The previous article covered how playing cards were used in more typical ways: for playing card games, for art, and for education. But the past has also witnessed playing cards being commonly used for other purposes, like the ones described here.
For Fortune Telling
Fortune telling, or cartomancy, has a long history and association with playing cards. While a traditional deck is rarely used for fortune telling today, the connection between playing cards and cartomancy continues, even though playing cards were used for playing games long before they were ever used for fortune telling. Especially in some cultures, there continues to be a close relationship between cards and fortune telling, which is why in the popular mind gypsies are associated with fortune telling cards.
Despite what some people think, the origin of our modern deck does not lie in the fortune telling Tarot deck. Tarot cards appear to have been a separate and later development from a standard deck of playing cards, and rather than pre-date the traditional deck, the 78 card Tarot deck actually came a century or two later. In fact, historical evidence suggests that the additional 22 cards common to a Tarot deck originated as trump cards for more advanced games, and at some point the addition of these cards to a standard deck led to a larger Tarot deck. This was first used for more complex trick-taking games, but later began to develop a life of its own in the hands of cartomancers and occultists.
The rise of divination eventually did see the use of playing cards for fortune telling and cartomancy, and the earliest known fortune-telling deck is by John Lenthall and dates from around the late 1600s. While the legitimacy of fortune telling will be dismissed by most modern secularists today, it cannot denied that it has made an important contribution to the history of playing cards and also had an impact on its artwork. This is particularly the case with the larger Tarot deck, which soon became a tool of choice for cartomancers, and is still commonly used as such today. Many Tarot decks were created with all the cards having colourful images that depicted all manner of disasters or good fortune. Many different Tarot decks exist, and these often feature wonderful artwork, and continue to be popular with collectors worldwide.
As we’ve seen already, playing cards were first used only by the aristocracy that could afford them, and it was only with the arrival of mass production that playing cards found themselves in the hands of the general public. Along with this welcome development came a less welcome one: gambling. Gambling soon became a real problem, especially because this is what the lower class chiefly engaged in when playing card games. It’s for this reason that the church frequently and strongly denounced card playing. And along with gambling came another dark activity: cheating.
But what about if cheating techniques are used to create illusions which are designed purely to amuse and entertain? That’s effectively what magic is all about, and so playing cards became an obvious tool for magicians to use, using similar techniques used by crooked gamblers. Magic as a performing art has a much longer history, of course, and sleight of hand existed long before playing cards, whether it was intended to cheat or to entertain. But playing cards did lend themselves very naturally to magicians looking for ways to create illusions, especially because they were a familiar item for the masses who used them for playing card games.
18th century Italian magician Giovanni Giuseppe Pinetti is often credited as being a pioneer that paved the way for playing card magic. His charismatic popularity made him a popular entertainer, and he was one of the very first to include card tricks in his official theater performances, and he even entertained royalty. Prior to this, the only place you could expect to see card magic was on the streets or in private rooms, and it didn’t have any real respect or credibility. Many famous magicians followed in Pinetti’s footsteps, such as the 19th century icons Robert-Houdin and Hofzinser, the latter being considered by some to be a father of card magic. From this time onwards, magicians began to include card tricks in their repertoire more and more, and card magic became a growing art form. Names like Dai Vernon, Charles Bertram, and Erdnase, are well known to magicians today, but these magicians played an important role in popularizing and shaping card magic as we know it.
Today we are building on the work of these pioneers, and magic with playing cards is often one of the places that beginners now start their journey in magic. Almost everyone has a deck of cards and is familiar with them, so they are an ideal starting point, requiring no real investment. Magicians tend to use cards extensively for practicing and performing, and the production of playing cards for working magicians represents one of the biggest shares of the playing card market in our modern era.
Playing cards have long served as an ideal souvenir, particularly when each individual card is used for a different picture. This turns a deck of cards into a mini photo album of 50+ individual works, making it perfect for depicting places or events. Souvenir decks started emerging in the 1890s, coinciding with the growing popularity of photography, which was at that time a very expensive undertaking. In contrast, a deck of souvenir playing cards allowed you to own a mini photo album of an exotic place or country you visited at a relatively low cost.
Special events have long provided a rich source of material for playing card artwork as well. Notable events such as various wars led to the production of commemorative decks of playing cards, to serve as memorials of the Napoleonic Wars, American Civil War, and many others. Royal occasions and other special state events have been commemorated in a similar fashion. Royal coronations and weddings have often featured on playing cards; so too anniversary celebrations of important discoveries or conquests.
Current events have also been a catalyst for new decks of playing cards, the First World War being a prime example. Some of these decks were used for the purposes of propaganda, with decks in Germany printing court cards that gave places of honour to the Kaiser and other leaders, while war scenes were depicted on other cards. Meanwhile playing cards reflecting Allied sentiments were produced in the United States, some featuring court cards depicting generals, officers, and other ranks. During the Second World War, a pro Allied deck produced by Van Mierle Proost included Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and de Gaulle as Kings, while the Aces had outlines of Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and the Kremlin.
But souvenir decks aren’t limited to events, with many decks created that depict colourful images of towns, countries, and cultures, geared to serve the tourist industry in particular. This, too, doesn’t exhaust the potential, since playing cards can depict almost any hobby or interest under the sun, and so we have seen the production of playing cards with images of anything from house-cats to antique furniture. Decks have been created to commemorate all kinds of unique interests, from ancient mythology to modern bull-fighting. A good example of this is a deck that was produced to honour the medical profession, featuring doctors, nurses, chemists, and research workers in hospital gowns, along with the expected equipment of stethoscopes and medicines.
The scope of souvenir and hobby decks is limited only by the imagination of the creators. Today’s custom playing card industry continues to benefit from this, and decks that celebrate popular films, celebrities, or sports, have a ready market. And virtually anywhere you travel, you’re bound to find a deck of cards with pictures that you can take home as a souvenir of the place you’ve visited.
This list by no means exhausts the many ways that playing cards have been used. For example, an important secondary usage of playing cards in previous centuries was as a source of writing paper. Early playing cards didn’t have artwork on the card backs, and were simply blank on the reverse side. Given that paper was often expensive to produce, this made a deck of playing cards a valuable source of paper. Individual cards became a very handy resource, and could be used for writing notes or lists, and were even used more formally as invitations, calling cards, coupons, or as a record of financial transactions, debts, or currency.
Playing cards no longer have blank card backs, so that particular secondary use has all but vanished. But today we are seeing new uses for playing cards emerge, the most notable one being for card flourishing. Cardistry is a thriving industry, and since cardists tend to wear out their decks even faster than magicians, and because of the importance of visual aesthetics, there’s a growing demand for colourful and creative designs.
The Standard Deck Today
Our historical overview demonstrates that playing cards have been used for a variety of uses across the ages besides playing cards, and so it comes as no surprise that in the past there has never really been a “standard” deck as we often imagine it today. Customized decks have existed for centuries, and there are many fine examples of playing cards created especially for the purpose or art or education. This means that the typical Bicycle style card deck as we usually think of it is in reality by no means “standard”.
Even today there’s actually a great variety of different types of decks used around the world, not just in terms of style, but also in size. Most of these are localized in their usage, but you will find places where 32 card decks are very common, or 48 card decks, and even 100+ card decks. In many cases, the size of the deck is closely connected with games that are popular in a specific region, and these games can’t even be played with a deck of a different size.
And not only is the size of a deck non-standard, but so is the artwork. Given the multiple uses for playing cards across the centuries, it was inevitable that there would be a diversity of artwork and styles. In that respect the modern custom playing card industry is hardly new, and customized playing cards have existed for centuries.
Yet despite all this rich variation throughout the history of playing cards, there does remain a commonly accepted “standard” for playing cards today. This standard is primarily based on the French suits that swept Europe and spread across the globe in previous centuries. Today’s court cards largely go back to printer Thomas de la Rue of London. Mr de la Rue was granted a patent for printing playing cards by letterpress and lithography in 1832, and subsequently took control of the playing card market due to his enormous success. With prices and taxes dropping, his production and sales increased significantly. Smaller designers that produced custom decks simply could not compete with him, and slowly disappeared, leaving de la Rue with a monopoly.
For better or for worse, it was the fact that de la Rue effectively cornered the market that led to cards becoming more or less standardized. In his book Playing Cards, Roger Tilley gives this very unflattering assessment of this development: “To add insult to injury, the very expressions of the cardboard court have been crystallized in commercialism. The kings’ looks have become those of company directors, strained and indicative of ulcers, while the queens and knaves have taken on the air of the attendant secretaries: the personal are pawky, and the company ones circumspect … Thomas de la Rue was without doubt a very great printer; yet that very genius proved calamitous to this small branch of the graphic arts … it might be said of Thomas de la Rue that he found a small quantity of marble and left a great quantity of brick.“
Certainly there have been attempts from time to time to create new designs that break with tradition, by designing and producing playing cards that are more easily recognized or with fresh or more contemporary patterns. But these have always failed to receive any serious degree of general acceptance. Of interest is the fact that the De La Rue Company itself promoted a competition in 1957 for new playing card imagery for the court cards to help celebrate the company’s 125th anniversary. But while the prize winning efforts of Jean Picart le Doux were beautiful, they were a commercial failure.
So it could be argued that the history of playing cards has become somewhat stale in the last era, since there have been no significant alterations to the “standard deck” of playing cards for a long time. The dominance of the USPCC has also led to the Bicycle rider-back design becoming somewhat iconic, and its success has also stifled other designs somewhat. Perhaps that is changing given the enormous success of the custom playing card industry, and the gradual acceptance of custom playing cards in the world of professional magic. But for now, at any rate, it seems that custom playing cards will continue to remain somewhat of a novelty rather than becoming a new standard. Even cardistry demands and encourages constant novelties, rather than the adoption of a new accepted standard.
A Lesson from the Past about the Present
We are fortunate to live in a new era of history, which has witnessed the explosion of custom playing cards, and also a growing acceptance of these by the general public. It remains to be seen what future generations will consider to be our contribution to the ongoing history of playing cards. I believe that the increasingly high standards of modern printing techniques, and the ability of the internet to connect creators and consumers, means that we are living in a time that is unprecedented. Highly imaginative and attractive playing cards are being produced, the likes of which have never been seen before. Perhaps today’s biggest contribution to the history of playing cards lies in new abilities to produce high quality decks, and to connect creators with backers and buyers, while ensuring that the entire enterprise remains affordable. The result is a marketplace flooded with new and exciting designs. Not only are we witnessing some very imaginative designs, but we are seeing incredible innovation in the area of tuck box designs, with the use of unprecedented techniques that allow boxes to be created with embossing, metallic foil and inks. The final product of the custom decks we can buy today is often a real work of art, and no wonder collectors love them.
Perhaps for now the lesson of history is this: to consider ourselves privileged for the luxuries we enjoy today. The future will undoubtedly look kindly on what our era has been producing. May we have a real eye of appreciation for the rich heritage that has produced this wealth, and respectfully tip our hat to those who have gone before us, and to the designers, printers, and middle men that help get these works of art into our hands and onto our game tables today.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, and collecting playing cards.
Small talk sucks! The unCURATED card game conquers chitchat once and for all!
unCURATED is a memento to late nights on the porch, where an exchange of meaningful stories forged better conversations, deep-rooted relationships, and stronger connections.
Its founder and creator, Dr. Cherini Ghobrial, hopes that each card pulled moves you closer to a solidified emotional foundation and further away from surface-level interactions.
About Dr. Cherini Ghobrial, Creator & Founder of unCURATED
After graduating from pharmacy school, where she earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, Dr. Ghobrial wanted to pursue health beyond physical wellness. Her current journey tackles the small-talk crisis.
The unCURATED card game is three rounds of creative questions designed to spark meaningful conversations, cultivate connection, and tend to all things essential to our emotional wellness.
At the beginning of the creative process, Dr. Ghobrial was unsure how impactful or far-reaching unCURATED would be. But her vision became crystal clear once she realized how much humans resent small talk. Conquering unpleasant pleasantries with more thought-provoking questions, unCURATED allows a genuine interconnection to enter the chat.
Our Small World Moment
By chance, hundreds of miles away from Shuffled Ink‘s Orlando manufacturing facility, one of our employees spotted Dr. Ghobrial’s unCURATED decks at Valor Coffee in Downtown Alpharetta, Georgia.
The wonderful humans at this brick-and-mortar shop think the world of unCURATED’s mission and have happily offered the game for several years now.
“I remember packing and shipping those cards,” our team member said. “So, it was really cool to see her game out in the real world.”
Say Hello! Find unCURATED At These Locations
Since launching in 2019 and winning the Plywood Presents: Idea Competition in Atlanta, the unCURATED card game has shipped across the globe to countless individuals and businesses.
So, whether you spot the deck by coincidence or pop into one of its East Coast vendors, be sure to grab a deck, join a group, and start connecting!
If we manufactured your card project and you would like us to share your Card Story on our blog, feel free to connect with our Marketing Team here.
SHUFFLEDINK Guests on THIS DREAM HOUSEOhio Radio Show
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Shuffled Ink is a multigenerational family business with an unwavering, decades-old mission: to provide an unparalleled experience in customer service and product quality to ensure that all clients’ card visions meet reality.
See what our clients are saying about the services, product quality and pricing we offer: Shuffled Ink Google Reviews.
In December 1999, Charles Levin, Founder & President of Shuffled Ink (formerly known as QPC Games), was raising three girls and two boys, ranging in age from one to 12. As a marketer living in the top U.S. travel destination (Orlando, Florida), he wanted to create an alternative to brochures and discount books.
He believed that custom-printed playing cards could deliver impactful marketing and branding applications, educational usefulness, and of course, fun-filled family game nights.
This thought, matched with an eager, entrepreneurial mindset, kickstarted Charles’ very first custom card project: advertisement playing cards, or Super Deck.
Charles’ Card Story: From Concept to Reality
The purpose of Super Deck was to promote and elevate tourist hotspots and establishments in the Orlando area. The original pack consisted of a map and cards with discounts and coupons for local attractions, dinner shows, restaurants, shopping, golf, and recreation. Soon after pitching the concept to prospective vendors, Charles had secured the marketing deck in 90 percent of Orlando hotel rooms.
Throughout the early 2000s, Shuffled Ink’s first employees were his 5 children: Melissa, Lori, Matthew, Lisa and Jonathan. The Levin family would regularly clear off the dining room table and use the space to create playing card prototypes and other related personalized products.
As sales blossomed and new opportunities arose, Charles moved the business into his three-car garage. For several years, this is where all marketing, sales, administration, and shipping took place.
For the past 9 years, Charles and his team of production facilitators, project managers and graphic designers have operated in an 8,000 square-foot office and production facility in Orlando, Florida. By Summer 2022, we are expanding into a 35,800 square-foot manufacturing and office space in Winter Garden, Florida.
Charles’ business model has changed quite a bit since Super Deck. Today, Shuffled Ink specializes in printing custom playing cards, tarot and flash cards, packaging, and more for businesses and individuals worldwide.
Family Entrepreneurship: The Shuffled Ink Team
Three of Charles’ kids are still involved at Shuffled Ink today.
Matthew, his oldest son, moved back to Orlando from New York City in 2016 to help him run the business as Chief Executive Officer. His daughter Lisa worked at the company part-time for many years but now oversees all customer services as Vice President of Sales. And youngest son, Jonathan, assists behind-the-scenes in the manufacturing facility.
“Throughout the past 22+ years, my kids’ incredible contributions and influence have added to the existence, growth, and success of Shuffled Ink.” –Charles Levin, Shuffled Ink Founder & President
Get To Know Us Better!
Shuffled Ink is a multigenerational family business with an unwavering, decades-old mission: to provide an unparalleled experience in customer service and product quality to ensure that all clients’ card visions meet reality.
While conversation-starter games are not new, Question Connection is unlike any other: It was created for kids by a kid.
Rising freshman at Harvard College and creator of Question Connection, Hannah Frazer, wonders how different middle school would have been if she’d had a safe way to meet and connect with her peers. And while she can’t alter past experiences, she can do the next best thing: change the social narrative for everyone else.
“I was the girl who loved to talk but needed a way to start the conversation.”–Hannah Frazer, founder of Question Connection
This non-invasive, supportive style of facilitating conversation, helps promote inclusion, foster relationships and build genuine connections in the classroom.
Growing up in a diverse, bilingual community, Hannah and so many of her classmates were unsure how to expand beyond their inner circle. Deep-leveled conversations, and even facilitating a surface-based one, felt out of reach. So, Hannah decided to create a practical and fun game that would ultimately redefine the nature of connections.
In this exclusive Shuffled Ink Card Story, game designer Hannah Frazer shares how an independent study transformed into a tangible product that cultivates empathy worldwide.
From Independent Study to Tangible Solution
Young adults like Hannah, who have spent the better half of their lives navigating the world through a digital lens often feel more comfortable communicating via a screen than face-to-face.
Hannah says that the constant presence of technology and social media only complicated her social challenges. This is one of the reasons why she decided to tackle such issues through a year-long independent study project.
Headed by her AP Psychology teacher, Hannah, a junior at the time, worked alongside and learned from other teachers, students, graphic designers and Shuffled Ink manufacturing to bring this ideato fruition. After starting a GoFundMepage for the card game, she covered the cost of production for the first two groups of cards (English and Spanish).
Soon enough, Hannah was actively introducing the conversation-starter game into classrooms, national organizations and other programs.
“I am always incredibly proud to be able to share this game with students and other young people,” Hannah said. “I love seeing the differences in kids’ body language and facial expressions before and after they connect with their peers.”
Hannah’s Advice on How to Design a Card Game
Step 1: Developing a card game that tackles social challenges takes a lot of research, time and effort. So, be patient!
Step 2: Coming up with good ideas and gaining support is not a walk in the park. But that doesn’t mean you should fold and give up. It will all be worth it when you see the positive impact that your card game provides.
Step 3: Play it forward, relax and have fun!
Play it Forward!
Hannah says that no one should ever be excluded from starting a conversation. This is why all deck proceeds go toward supplying Question Connection to under-resourced communities.
“In today’s world, there has been a huge rise in hate crimes, antisemitism, racism,” she said. “A conversation can make a world of difference when it comes to educating oneself about people from different backgrounds.”
Become a Question Connection Student Ambassador
Question Connection strives to put an end to social divisions and you can, too! Send a message to questionconnectiongame.com if you or anyone you know is interested in getting involved!
Hannah Frazer’s Question Connection has also been mentioned in:
Join the stride toward eco-friendly solutions with #SISustainableSummer. Starting this month and through the week of Aug. 29, we are recognizing Shuffled Ink clients who choose eco-friendly materials for their card products.
“We chose the 100% post-consumer box because incorporating sustainable materials in our product packaging was important to us, and especially in what we offer to our customer base. An incredible amount of resources go into packaging daily around the world; we wanted to reduce our impact as much as possible in material choices for our products” — Meo & Shannon
Eco Tuck Box
100% Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers White Tuck Box
Printed on high-quality paper to produce beautifully sound colors, this 65-card deck is compact with pure vibrant energy. Designed as a love oracle deck, each card carries divine and raw insight, getting straight to the point about love and romantic soulmate inquiries. This deck can be used as a stand-alone oracle or paired nicely as a clarifier deck with other tarot or oracle decks.
“Every choice that we make, big or small, is impactful. Choosing @shuffledink to produce my playing cards was already a more environmentally responsible choice. And taking the next step to implement a 100% post-consumer box to hold my cards together was an even easier decision that resulted in a beautifully finished product.” –Shaun Wegscheid
100% Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers White Tuck Box
The majority of components for this project utilize greener alternatives. The entire card box and nearly all packaging material are made from recycled material and/or compostable.
This set includes 6 North American cryptids. Deck designer, Shaun W., put forth specific efforts to avoid a majority from any specific region of the continent. The 6 cryptids included in this playing card deck are Batsquatch, Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Flitterbick, Mothman and Fresno Nightcrawler. Each card suit has been shifted to represent a Cryptid. The shape takes notes from both the traditional playing card suit, as well as the cryptid. The red hearts and diamonds use a blue and purple color scheme, and the black clubs and spades use a blue and green color scheme.
“Launching a brand includes a multitude of decisions and working with a company that gave an option for more sustainable packaging was important. Choosing the 100% post-consumer box for my deck of cards was an easy decision, and partnering with @shuffledink gave me a beautiful product that I can also feel proud knowing was a more responsible choice for the environment.” –Samantha March
Eco Tuck Box
100% Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers White Tuck Box
Helping you stay inspired, this deck displays a healthy habit on each card. The tuck box is printed on post-consumer recycled materials
“We were drawn to ‘family owned and operated’ and once we got down to business, @shuffledink exceeded our expectations in quality, professionalism and their ability to be competitive with their prices. While other companies made us feel like our product (@popquip) was a low priority and they weren’t interested in working with our special requests (plastic-free packing) and printing the tuck box on recycled, post-consumer paper, Matt (CEO) and Lisa (VP of Sales) were happy and excited to work with us. They have earned another loyal customer by going above and beyond to make sure we were 100% completely satisfied with their work. We look forward to many more orders with them.” –Adam Morley and Megan Robinson
100% Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers White Tuck Box
Locally produced to reduce the environmental impact associated with transportation, the Pop Quip! Game is printed on 100% post-consumer recycled fibers and packed without cellophane wrapping.
Game creators Adam Morley and Megan Robinson are a couple of pun-loving individuals striving to bring wordplay to life! FullIt’s compact so you can play anywhere. It’s great for road trips, game nights, airports, video chats and more!
“It is important to use ethical and sustainable practices with harvesting gems and minerals, and The Crystal Universe Deck gives people a chance to connect with the energy of crystals and minerals without having to over-consume.”–Deanna Jacome & Grace Harrington Murdoch
Eco Tuck Box
100% Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers White Tuck Box
Creators Deanna Jacome and Grace Harrington Murdoch welcome you seamlessly into the natural world of crystals and stones with their Crystal Universe Deck. Its powerful healing components enhance our connection to nature, from the smallest pebble below to the massive planets above.
They chose the 100% post-consumer box for their cards because caring for the environment is important to them. While creating the deck, they spent a lot of time connecting with nature. The 40 fine art paintings were often done outside for each card and the writing for each oracle card was done in a very grounded and mindful way, carrying messages to connect with the natural world as often as possible.
“I’ve always been drawn to the kraft style material on printed pieces because it comes across as more handcrafted and personal than most printed packaging. Especially since printing can be such a technical process, I wanted something that felt more human. When I was writing and designing my card deck, the words and visuals kept pointing towards our connection to nature and reconnecting with our innate, natural wellbeing as a result of this connection. The sustainable packaging option felt like the obvious choice.”–Gabriel Gandzjuk
Eco Tuck Box
30% Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers Brown Eco Kraft Tuck Box
In October 2020, Shuffled Ink partnered with True Life Habitat creator Gabriel Gandzjuk to manufacture his eco-friendly True You Cards. We were extremely excited to dip our toe into sustainable packaging, as this was one of the first Eco Kraft projects that we produced for a client.
Quiet your cluttered mind with a daily moment of pause and insight in this beautifully designed card deck. True You Cards were designed to see that mental wellness is closer within our reach than we think. Disconnect from your device and reconnect with the True You.
Shuffled Ink’s Sustainable Summer Decks
We are also thrilled to launch the Sustainable Summer Deck collection, inspired by our beautiful planet and made with components of post-consumer recycled fibers.
Those of us who love customized playing cards can at times succumb to the temptation to be dismissive and cool towards an uncustomized, namely a standard, deck of playing cards. You know what I mean: your typical Bicycle rider-back deck, a set of “plain” courts and face cards. The kind of deck we’ve all seen a gazillion times, so that we consider it entirely traditional and perhaps even bland.
With that perspective, it came as somewhat of a surprise for me to discover that playing cards in the 1800s looked nothing like this. Let me place an imaginary deck of playing cards from that era in your hand, and tell you what you’d see. First of all, you’ll immediately notice that the card-backs are all white. Yes really: a plain white, with no back design at all. Then you look at the court cards and notice that they are all full-sized one way designs. And as you fan the cards in your hand, you notice that there are no indices on the corners of the cards. When you finally discover the Ace of Spades, you notice that it looks rather plain and ordinary, with the ornate and over-sized design typical of modern decks being altogether absent.
So how did we get from this to the “standard” deck that we know today? Let’s visit some of the historical curiosities that have played a role in shaping our modern playing cards as we know them today.
Red and Black Suits
Today were expect a deck of playing cards to have red and black suits, but that’s certainly not how playing cards first looked. In fact the original suits used in Italian playing cards in the 1400s were Swords, Clubs, Cups, and Coins, and each of these had unique artwork, which wasn’t in any way strictly red and black. These suits were changed to Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells when playing cards were imported to Germany, which became a dominant producer of playing cards on the European market.
But all that changed when French manufacturers developed new techniques for printing playing cards. Already in the early 15th century, France had developed its own suits as we know them today: Hearts, Spades, Diamonds, and Clubs. But the real genius came when the French producers of playing cards divided these four suits into two red and two black, and simplified the shape of pips so that they could be cheaply produced by stencil while remaining easy for card players to recognize them. Suddenly it became possible to use stencils to manufacture large amounts of cards quickly and easily by using a single image of a king, a queen, and a knave, in combination with stencils for the suit icons.
Within a short time, the French had taken over the playing card industry, simply by sheer volume of production, since this method was far more efficient and simple than using wood cuts or engraving. As a result of this important commercial advantage, the French suits in red and black became familiar throughout Europe, with only pockets continuing with the German suits. And that’s how we got the red and black suits that we still use today!
Suit Pips and Names
It is hard to imagine playing cards with suits other than how we know them today: Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades. But the four suits have actually undergone a significant evolution of artwork and of names. These changes owe much to the history of playing cards, and is closely connected with the different countries that were world leaders in playing card production in different times.
Playing cards likely arrived in Europe via Egypt. The 14th century playing cards from the Mamluk period in Egypt used suits in four colours, using Cups, Coins, Swords, and Polo-sticks. These corresponded to the major pastimes and activities of the upper class, which was known to have a fondness for polo, for example. Italian and Spanish playing cards from that period also used Cups, Coins, Swords and Clubs as their suits, and are apparently indebted to the Mamluk suits that likely made their way across the Mediterranean with the help of traders. Even to the present day, these are the suits found on modern playing cards used in Italy and Spain, and are referred to as the Latin suits.
When Germany became the world’s leading playing card producer, these suits changed to Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells, reflecting something of German culture and interests. Playing cards from nearby Switzerland are a variation of this, with Shields and Flowers being used in place of Leaves and Hearts.
But eventually France took over Germany’s dominance of the playing card industry, with new methods of production made possible by simplifying the deck into red and black suits, and the help of the printing press. When the capital of playing card production thus returned to Western Europe, these red and black suits then became the standard suits, using the familiar pips as we know them today, although at the time they were called Coeurs, Piques, Carreaux, and Trefles.
Even though the pips that were introduced and popularized in France around 1480 are the ones we recognize today, they had not yet been assigned the names that are in common current usage. While the French word Coeurs indeed means Hearts and Piques (pikes) can be translated Spades, the word Carreaux (tiles) would best have been translated by the word Lozenge, which was the word used at the time to describe a rhombus or diamond shape. And while Trefles can be translated as Clover, the use of the term Clubs actually has a closer connection to the matching Italian suit of Bastoni, and hails back to the polo sticks of the Mamluk era. We simply can’t be sure why some of the French card names were abandoned. But what we do know is that it is the English card names that gained traction, and that’s what we still use today.
Interestingly, the English-French suits and court cards have a distinctly courtly flavour, while the Latin ones are military, and the Germanic ones are rustic. Some historians have suggested the possibility that the four suits are symbolic and represent the four classes of medieval society, which varied according to geographic and cultural origin where the decks were produced. For example, it is speculated that the Latin suits correspond to the church (Cups = chalices), merchants (Coins), peasantry (Batons = clubs), and military (Swords). Similarly it is suggested that the German suits correspond to the church (Hearts), nobility (Hawk Bells), peasantry (Acorns), and middle class (Leaves); while the French suits correspond to the church (Hearts), citizenry (Diamonds = tiled paving stones used in churches), peasantry (Clover = pig food and husbandry), and aristocracy (Spades = pikes or spearheads).
At any rate, the major suits that we use today were firmly established in France by the end of the 15th century, and haven’t undergone any real change since then.
Prior to the the start of the 19th century, playing cards typically all had white backs. These convenient sources of paper could easily be conscripted for other uses, and were often written on and used for letters, notes, or drawing; and even used as credit notes. One extraordinary usage dates back to the 18th century in the Netherlands, where impoverished mothers left their babies at orphanages along with a message on the back of a playing card – the cheapest paper available – which would function as a form of ID, and had a message from the mother along with the baby’s name. Mothers that planned to return some day would leave just half a card, keeping the matching half as future proof of their parental connection.
However the white backs also created practical problems: cards could easily become marked, and this presented an obvious issue when playing card games. Options were limited, especially if money was tight – it was costly to purchase a new deck, and returning the cards to the workshop for cleaning wasn’t an ideal or permanent solution either. Manufacturing techniques did improve in time, but the use of intricate patterns or small pictures on the back initially began as a commercially smart move to hide faults in the paper, thereby enabling producers to use cheaper grades of paper, or to minimize the issue of marked backs. There was a need to hide any signs of wear and tear, and that is what led manufacturers to print designs and pictures on the reverse of playing cards, by printing repeating geometric patterns of stars or dots.
The first card backs with an actual original design were created in 1831, to commemorate the coronation of King William and Queen Adelaide. With the development of full colour lithiography, it became possible to produce card backs that were richly decorated, and these began to be produced from 1844 onwards. It didn’t take long before card backs were used for advertising and marketing, as well as artistic designs that helped make the cards more attractive or highlighted the ability of the artist and designer.
Poker and Bridge Size
Poker-sized cards may seem “large” in comparison to bridge sized cards, but originally playing cards were even larger in size than the ones we use today. The reduction in size from these larger cards to the “poker-sized” ones as we know them today is a later development in playing card history.
Bridge-sized cards were first developed as a result of the growing popularity of card games like Bridge, which required players to hold large numbers of cards in their hand, and yet be able to easily determine their values. Whereas a standard poker-sized card is 2.5 inches wide by 3.5 inches high (64 × 89 mm), the narrow bridge-sized card is 2.25 inches wide by 3.5 inches high (57 × 89 mm), making them about 10% narrower, and more ideal for larger hand sizes.
The designations poker-size and bridge-size simply refer to the size and don’t limit their usage to particular types of card games. Bridge-size cards can equally be used for poker, and poker-size cards can be used for other games like BlackJack, and in fact are typically used as such in many casinos. But these two sizes are now more or less standard, and date as far back as 1880s in playing cards printed by USPCC. Magicians and cardists tend to have a strong preference for poker-sized cards, due to the fact that their increased width makes them more suitable for manipulation, card sleights, and flourishing.
Tarot cards appear to have had a separate origin from regular playing cards, and were not a predecessor to the standard 52 card deck, despite claims of some that Tarot cards existed first. In fact the earliest surviving Tarot cards date from a period much later than regular playing cards, and they appear to have had an early use as additional trump cards. They consisted of 22 separate designs with allegorical illustrations, and were added to a standard deck in order to create a larger overall deck which was used first of all for gaming. While this larger deck possibly also functioned as a means of instruction and education, these extra cards were not first of all added as a result of an interest in the occult or for fortune-telling.
As part of a 78 card tarot deck that could be used for more elaborate and complex games, tarot cards were only used for occultic cartomancy for the very first time around 1750. The symbolism and significance of the original illustrations that do date back to Renaissance Italy has been lost over time, and it is most likely that the original artwork of these additional cards simply reflects the 15th century cultural fashions of the day. The Tarot deck may have gained a life of its own in occult circles today, but this usage doesn’t pre-date the standard deck.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, and collecting playing cards. This article first appeared on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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During the first week of December, Shuffled Ink‘s father-son duo, Charlie & Matt, discussed 21 years of producing custom playing cards and games on The Debbie Nigro Show.
Since 1999, we have produced millions of custom printed decks, including playing cards, card & board games, and tarot & flash cards, for globally recognized brands, leading game designers and countless individuals.