Playing cards tell a story. About the technique that they are made with, about the style and taste of their era. But also about the thriftiness in the past, as single cards from incomplete decks were used for just about anything that one can do with paper: they were written or drawn upon, overprinted, but also cut, rolled or pleated and glued or pinned to something.
Stationery paper was rare and expensive and playing cards were relatively cheap, had a handy format and a certain firmness. The cards were sold in paper wrappers, instead of the boxes that we now have, and therefore got lost easily.
Already in the 15th century playing cards were given a secondary use for all kinds of goals. A few examples from a wide range: they were used as simple labels, but also for announcements of weddings or funerals, emergency money, i.o.y.'s; for music notations, but also as an aid for p.o.w.'s to escape from German prison camps during WWII; for household use as a spool or a box, but also to leave a mother's cry of despair with the baby that was left at the orphanage or convent.

Their secondary use turns these playing cards into a rare and valuable source of documentation of daily life from the 15th to the 20th century. You can imagine that there are amusing, interesting, remarkable and sometimes repugnant stories to tell.  Between 2005 and 2008 Gejus van Diggele has told the story behind a different card each month on this page. I hope you'll enjoy the total of 40 great stories about small cards.




# 1


Invitation to a Festival Ball, American, 1815.

It reads:

The company of Mr. Harvey Gillman is respectfully solicited at T. Davis Hall, on Friday, 23d June, A.L. 5815, 5 o'clock, P.M.
J. Wiggins, H. Richardson, I Owen, D Baldwin, G. Loomis, Managers.
Montpelier, 14th June, A.L. 5815.

playing card maker unknown, USA.

The front of the card shows a Queen of Hearts, in a single image. Woodprint and stencil coloured.
The blank back has been surprinted in bookprint.
Gejus van Diggele Collection

Around 1800 in America people started to use playing cards for invitations to a "Social Ball", a dance party with a social character, where finding a spouse was one of the key issues. To give these parties the desired level, one was personally invited by the managers of the ballroom. The parties began at an hour, that is quite different than what we are accustomed to: at the end of the afternoon, usually on a Sunday. The party ended around 9 in the evening. In those days people went to bed early. Besides that, there were no public streetlights and wondering around late could be risky.
The earliest invitations on playing cards were handwritten. Later they were printed, first on the blank back and later, when the backs were decorated, the numbercards of the Hearts and Diamonds were overprinted with the text of the invitation. Clubs and Spades became unfit for use.
These invitations on playing cards were in widespread use in the United States. What makes this one unique is the dating: it is the calendar used by the freemasons:
5815 stands for the year 1815 and the A.L. for Anno Lucis.