April 2018



Sorting out a collection of some 80 folders with sheets is highly time consuming. Louis had an ingenious way of presenting each deck on 2 sheets. Presentation apparently meant a lot to him and if there were not enough extra cards or jokers to fit the layout of the sheet, he would make almost perfect copies of some cards and add them. But the hardest part is to find the remaining cards of the deck, which are in a box, a plastic box or bag. These boxes etc are kept in larger boxes. Some are coded with letters, some with numbers and some very large ones don't appear to have any specific name or number. It will keep us busy for months.

From all the decks that we have already been able to unite we sort out the ones that we have, so we can see if the new deck would be an improvement of our own copy or if it will end up in the large box of decks to sell. It's a second job in itself and it also takes up a good deal of time.
Fortunately there are rewards. We've found decks that we had never seen before or that have been on our wish list for some time now. The chosen deck for this spot had been on that list for quite a while.


The deck was printed by the USPCC and published in 1896 as "Nr. 47 Circus Playing cards". In fact there were two publications. According to the Hochman Encyclopedia (Dawsons, 2000) there has been a first edition earlier that year, in which the P (of Playing) on the Ace of Spades ran into the spade sign. It was considered a flaw in the design and repaired in the second edition.

The design of the court cards is quite different from the cards that were produced in the 1890's. To understand the reason for this a concise history, based on the Hochman Encyclopedia, is needed. Since 1881 the Russell, Morgan & Co began to produce playing cards. In 1885 the company was succeeded by the Russell & Morgan Printing Company. After the takeover of 2 printing companies the name was changed in 1891 into the United States Printing Company. The expanded printing activities of the company led to the need to bring the playing card production together in a separate company and in 1894 the United States Playing Card Company was incorporated.
The new company saw its birth as the start of a new era in playing cards and a series of new brands with excitingly new designs was produced since 1895. With the publication of the Hustling Joe and Ye Witches semi-transformation decks and the Vanity Transformation deck a new standard in design was introduced. They were followed by the Stage deck, but more important by the proverbial "New Era" deck and this Circus deck in 1896. Refreshingly new, elegant, colourful designs on the courts. At that time seen as more European in style, which isn't a surprise if the alternative is the Anglo-American pattern. But that pattern was probably more embedded than expected and these modernized designs have never become popular among players. The New Era deck was still in the sales catalogue of 1908 and the Circus deck was even available until 1925. We can only be grateful that they were not very popular. Although they are scarce, when you find a deck it's often in excellent or pristine condition. And so was this deck..... ENJOY!



In the Hochman Encyclopedia the kings are described as ringmasters and the jacks as clowns, but queens just as queens. However, they all hold a whip too, so they must have had a role in the circus. We don't think that the whip was used by them to keep wild animals on their spot, but our guess is that they represent the girls, who were in charge of the dressage of the horses or were riding horseback and doing tricks while riding. We can just picture the QS elegantly riding, while standing on one leg and holding up her whip.


The ace of spades has the name and number of the deck, the copyright date and the name and location of the USPCC. The other aces are plain, but, unlike the AS, they have an embellished yellow border line. This feature is also found on all the pip cards.



Apparently this back design is called "Hippodrome" and it exists in red and green.



When I found a Belgian deck at the Jaarbeurs and showed it to the Dutch collector Paul Symons, he told me that similar borders had been used in the Circus deck and that there had been some question about who had influenced who. At that time we didn't have this deck yet, but now that we compare the decks and borders, I would say that the Belgian manufacturer Mesmaekers had probably seen them and copied the idea not long after for the aces and pip cards in a luxury version of the "cartes impériales". The lines are not as delicately done as in the Circus deck, but copied until the last curl. Also the large indices were not quite "Belgian" for those days, but the used pattern was already well known at the time. An attempt by Mesmaekers to refresh the look and "modernize" too?