One of the reference books in our personal library at Daria of Woodbury Antiques, is a leather bound volume called THE HISTORY OF PLAYING CARDS by Reverend E.S. Taylor, published in London, England in 1865. It's an interesting book because it documents that seeking out antique categories, like cards, is not a new hobby. Undistinguished "collectible" goods, distinct from old paintings, glass, furnishings, and other areas more commonly thought of as antiques, have been passionately sought for many years.
According to Taylor, playing cards were probably introduced to Western society by gypsies who brought them from the far East. Early hand-made artist-painted and wood-block printed cards were produced on ivory, metal, and most commonly, a cardboard like paper in Europe for several hundred years since the fourteenth century. Unfortunately, such cards are so scarce that they are almost unavailable today.
The first account of cards in America is a 1633 recording in the county records of Plymouth, Massachusetts, fining several heathens two pounds each for card playing. In 1656 the puritan colony law stated that children and servants were to be "publickly whipt" for second offenses. Playing cards cut from sheep and deerskin were found by U.S. soldiers in Sioux packs in the 1860's. These Native American cards are painted in suit signs resembling the manner of Spanish cards from three centuries past. They seem, with the financial success of Indian Casinos, more like tarot cards now.
Suit signs, diamonds, hearts, etc., have developed over the years into the four suits known presently. Since the early 1800's face card design, King, Queen, etc., has remained relatively unchanged. Some U.S. manufacturing companies introduced patriotic symbols like Lafayette, George Washington, or Lady Liberty, in place of the Royal Family face cards following the Revolution. These cards met with little public success. They are rare and sought-after today. The joker is an American innovation first introduced as the "Best Bower" extra card included in euchre decks during the 1860's. By 1900, this extra card had evolved into the wild "Joker" card and was part of almost every manufactured deck.
Around 1855 the firm of Lawrence and Cohen of New York City, introduced playing cards that were the first to show the value (number) and suit in the corners, enabling one to easily read a fanspread "hand." Before this improved product became standard around 1880, players had to lay out their cards to count the number of suit marks. The new cards were appropriately named "Squeezers." Rounded edges were introduced to cards in the 1870's. Cards began to carry advertisements in the late 1880's, and in 1893, when the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago, souvenir decks began to sprout. Advertising and souvenir cards are highly collected today.
Examination of cards or their containers for tax marks or stamps is another clue that might be available in determining age. Governments, world wide, have never been shy about instituting what they consider to be sin taxes.
Old playing cards may be found in attic boxes, old desk drawers, or occasionally at church bazaars and tag sales. Determining relative value is no different in cards than it is many other categories of antiques we've discussed. Look for good condition and age, striking graphics, and interesting subject matter.