IT'S IN THE CARDS
by Ben Bornstein
You say "Politics"…it's in the cards. Playing cards have been involved with politics for hundreds of years. In the United States there have been cards since the days of George Washington. Some have been serious and some have been comical. A deck called Seminole War Playing Cards was printed in 1819, and hand-coloured. Its kings were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
In 1863, a double pack of cards was printed by Mortimer Nelson, one showing Confederate Generals, the other showing Union Generals. Many packs were printed during the first and second world wars depicting people in the news that were in politics…Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt.
In later years, there were several packs printed that poked fun at the world leaders… "The Politicards" series first came out in the days of Nixon, then Carter, then Reagan and finally, Clinton.
Politicians used cards to advertise themselves, when they were running for election. Barry Goldwater printed a pack showing the letters AU, H2O on the back, the chemical symbols for gold and water, and had his face superimposed on the Jacks, Queens and Kings.
A modern political pack was "The Cards of War", designed by Eugene Bonham. They were printed just after the Gulf War and showed everyone from George Bush to General Colin Powell to General H. Norman Schwarzkopf on the cards.
Europeans also got into the act. A deck printed in 1954 in Belgium showed Hitler as the joker, and people such as Charles DeGaulle, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt on the court cards.
A deck called the Allied Arms was printed in Canada in 1916 and showed such people as: Elena, Queen of Italy; Elizabeth, Queen of the Belgians; Her Majesty Queen Mary; and Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia as the queens…His Majesty King George V; Victor Emanuel III, King of Italy; Albert I, King of the Belgians; and Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia as the kings.
Every president has decks printed with his name on them for Air Force 1. There are packs made showing Camp David, and the CIA.
And now cards made in Europe with political themes: SPAIN…A Republican deck of 48 cards. On the four kings are pictured Costa, Castelar, Pi y Margall and Salmeron. Published in 1931 to commemorate the founding in Spain of the Second Republic.
Political cards designed by Ortuna. A double deck of 104 cards and two jokers with EVERY known political figure of the era. People such as: Churchill, Truman, DeGaulle, Adanauer, HiroHito, Golda Meir, Ghandi, Sukarno, Pope John XXII, Nasser, Hitler, Chou en Lai, etc…etc…etc.
FRANCE…An Imperial deck printed in 1858 with the aces bearing the coats of arms of France, Germany, England and Russia. A DeGaulle deck printed in 1965 with caricatures of DeGaulle and his ministers. There were many decks printed that relate to Napoleon…his wars and his life.
GERMANY…There were dozens of decks printed about political figures in Germany and Austria. By the way…some of the most beautiful decks were, and are, made by Piatnik of Austria.
ENGLAND…One of the earliest decks about politics was the POPISH CONSPIRACY…a deck of 52 engraved cards with illustrations by supporters of Charles II. This deck was done in 1679. In 1685 a deck was made commemorating the Monmouth Rebellion. A historical deck relating to Queen Anne was made in 1704. Many decks were made referring to royalty. Everything from a pack celebrating 60 years on the throne by Victoria, to the marriages of Edward VII and Alexandra, George V and Mary, Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Diana, and Edward and Fergie. They come in many forms.
In 1882 a company was formed called the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards. They would make ONE deck a year with the master card maker's picture on the Ace of Spades. Many Worshipful decks have been politically inclined.
BELGIUM…In 1875 a pack was printed of the FIRST CRUSADE. It shows Franois I, Geoffrey of Bouillon, Philip the Good, and Bedouin of Constantinople. A deck was made in 1919, THE FIRST WORLD WAR, the kings were George V and Victor Emanuel III, the presidents, Poincare and Wilson, and the generals, Joffre, Cadorna, Foch and Douglas Hakg. A second pack was made, WORLD WAR II, the kings of Belgium, Serbia, Japan and Rumania and the generals, Pershing, Petain, Leman and Kitchener.
RUSSIA…The most famous deck made in Russia is the ANTI-RELIGIOUS deck, made in 1930. It pokes fun at the four major religions known at that time.
And now back to the AMERICAS…In 1892, A.H. Caffee made a pack called Comic Political Playing Cards. Most likely the best political deck ever issued. Grover Cleveland was running for office and all the court cards were political figures on the National scene. The king of hearts was Cleveland and the king of spades was Benjamin Harrison. The joker was a boxing match where Cleveland knocks out Harrison.
The National Card Co. made a pack in 1883 that had suit signs of Eagles, Flags, Stars and Shields. The kings depicted Lincoln, Washington, Andrew Jackson and Chester Arthur. In 1864, William Walker, a famous artist during the Civil War painted a pack with political figures on the courts. This pack sold at auction in 1994 for $28,000…WOW!
So you see, politics in playing cards are very world-wide and VERY old. If you have a pack of old playing cards and would like it identified, please contact me. You may also want to find out more about 52 PLUS JOKER, a club for playing card collectors.
This article appeared on pages 45 and 46 of the October/November 1998 issue (Volume 24) of Antiques & Collectibles Trader. For more information about this excellent publication and other resources for collectors, contact