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Playing cards may date as far back as seventh century China, and they were certainly well known in China by the 11th century. Their history is complex and, at times, difficult to verify, thanks to the fact that playing cards tend to decay in a very short period of time, making it difficult to track down historical examples of playing cards. Playing cards are also quite diverse, with different regions having different suits and different numbers of cards, which can sometimes be frustrating for travelers.
The origins of playing cards are believed to lie in China, and they probably spread outwards, first to India and later to the Middle East. As playing cards moved across Asia, the suits and numbers of cards mutated, with decks including anywhere from 36 to 72 cards, with three, four, and five suits, and sometimes even more. By the late 14th century, playing cards had been introduced to Europe, where they proved to be extremely popular.
Early playing cards were produced by hand, making them extremely expensive, and they were also larger than the playing cards used today. Only the elite would have been able to play cards, leading some societies to associate playing cards with the upper classes. In addition to being used for playing games, playing cards have also historically been used for cartomancy, a form of fortune telling which utilizes playing cards. The Tarot deck which is famously used in cartomancy, incidentally, is also used to play card games in many parts of Europe.
As a general rule, playing cards could be divided between pip and court cards by the time they reached Europe, with suit cards representing royalty while pip cards were marked with varying number of objects representing their suit.
With the development of woodcuts and later the printing press, playing cards became more accessible to the masses, and a number of variations on the basic playing card design emerged. Most English speakers are familiar with the so-called “French” system of playing cards, which includes 52 cards divided into hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades, with 10 pip cards and three court cards in each suit. In the 1800s, Americans added the joker, while the concept of “aces high” emerged during the French revolution.
It is also possible to find playing cards arranged into Latin suits: chalices, swords, money, and batons are used to represent the four suits in places like Spain and Italy, while Germany and parts of Eastern Europe seem to prefer the Germanic suits of hearts, acorns, bells, and leaves. Asian playing cards get even more complex, like Japanese hanafuda or “flower cards,” and Indian playing cards with suits which represent the elements associated with various gods.
I have heard that the faces on the face cards represent historical and/or mythical figures. For instance, the King of Hearts was said to represent Charlemagne; the King of Diamonds was Julius Caesar; the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great and the King of Spades was King David of Israel. If I remember correctly, the Queen of Hearts was said to represent Helen of Troy -- appropriate for "the face that launched a thousand ships."
So play a hand of poker and get a history lesson thrown in.