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Playing Card Collection Offers Insights into History, Leisure, and Art from the Past Two Centuries

The Edwards H. Metcalf Collection of Playing Cards is a newly processed collection that tells a distinct history of card playing with decks from around the globe dating from 1820 to 1940. The collection was donated by the estate of Edwards H. Metcalf, former Pepperdine board member and grandson of Henry Edwards Huntington, the founder of the Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Gardens. Metcalf had previously donated a collection of rare books relating to T.E. Lawrence to the Boone Special Collections and University Archives.

two playing cards

The collection is an amazing example of how much history can be packed into something that may otherwise seem mundane, like playing cards. For example, the origin of the flourished ace of spades we see in a typical deck from today is in duty cards such as this one above (left) in this English deck from 1830 that shows a tax stamp for one shilling required to be paid by the makers. This tax was eventually abolished in the mid-1900s, but these stamps have a lasting legacy. Additionally, artwork has always been a key factor in playing cards. We see this today in specialized decks created by artists, and we see it here in a card from French cardmaker B.P. Grimaud’s “Jean L’Hachette” transformation deck of 1860, pictured above (right). The pips (the symbols on the card, in this case the clubs) are designed within the image, integrated into objects such as a vase, hat, and chandelier.

playing cards

Some playing cards were designed to convey society’s widely-held beliefs. Others documented the current events during a particular period. The deck pictured above, printed in 1862, is a Union playing deck from the American Civil War, specially printed with American suits of eagles, stars, shields, and flags with majors, colonels, and the goddess of liberty replacing the court cards. While not exceptionally impactful in uniting the already warring country (the war would continue for another three years), the deck gives us an insight into efforts of the American people to instill patriotic sentiment during a time of strife.

This collection is a great resource for research into the history of leisure in the 19th and 20th centuries across the world. It is a fascinating collection to look through – especially for those interested in the history of gaming. You can peruse the Edwards H. Metcalf Playing Card Collection finding aid online or contact us to make a request to see the decks in person in the Special Collections Reading Room in Payson Library.