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The Buyable Past

May 2024
1min read

Playing Cards

The history of cards contains its share of controversy. A Swiss edict prohibiting them antedates the oldest surviving European examples, which were made during the fifteenth century. American decks began appearing after the Revolution and during the next century became wonderfully various and elaborate. Some collectors focus on single-ended faces, which have their suit symbols and numerical values or court ranks printed on one end rather than both, while others prefer unusual face designs or specific back motifs. Cards promoting businesses or brands ranging from General Electric to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer are highly popular. So are cards with patriotic themes and political subject matter, as well as those once sold as souvenirs of tourist destinations and railway routes. The list goes on and on.

As for prices, decks with pinup girls sell for as little as $20, while mint examples illustrated by the celebrated Alberto Vargas fetch about $100. A Union Civil War deck with patriotic shields, stars, eagles, and the flag for suit marks might cost $1,000. One high-stakes player recently anted up more than $10,000 for an 1819 deck commemorating the First Seminole War, but five-figure prices are rare in the American card-collecting game.

—David Lander

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