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The history of the ace of spades is closely tied to the history of playing cards in general, though there are a few unique aspects of the ace card itself. In the past, cards were typically numbered from ace to 10, with the court cards being the highest cards in each suit. Ace cards, however, were eventually promoted over the court cards, and different suits have been used in various regions, with the spade suit developing in French decks. The ace of spades is often associated with death and is commonly referred to as the “death card.”
Playing cards in general likely developed in China and made their way into Europe during the 14th century, where they promptly spread in popularity throughout various European countries. Some of the earliest decks of cards were plainly numbered from one to 10; the term “ace” was used to refer to the smallest unit of something. The highest cards in these decks were not the aces, but the court cards that often included knaves, queens, and kings. Games began to develop, however, in which aces were used as high cards, and the French Revolution likely promoted this idea further as the lowest card was promoted to be superior to the “royalty” within the deck.
Different suits were initially introduced in early European playing cards, with many cards using the swords, coins, cups, and wands suits often found on tarot cards. German playing cards, however, were created with bells, hearts, acorns, and leaves. Playing cards created in France introduced a different set of suits, keeping the hearts from the German deck, establishing diamonds instead of bells, changing acorns into clubs, and finally keeping a shape similar to a leaf but renaming the suit “spades.” This created a deck of cards in which the ace of spades could be found, and ultimately led to its promotion over court cards.
The ace of spades itself is often the highest card in the deck in many games, including most games of poker. Its reputation as the “death card” may stem from the fact that early British decks of playing cards were taxed by the monarchy. Anyone could print the other 51 cards in the deck, but the ace of spades had to feature an insignia from an approved printer to ensure taxes were paid on each deck. Illegal printing of cards was a lucrative yet dangerous business, and at least one person was sentenced to death for printing the ace without paying the necessary taxes, which may have established it as the “death card.”
This association between the ace of spades and death was likely furthered by its inclusion in the legendary “dead man’s hand” of two pairs of aces and eights, supposedly held by Wild Bill Hickok at the time of his murder. Due to its importance as the luckiest or highest card in the deck, the ace of spades was often painted onto vehicles or body armor of military in World War II for good luck. In the Vietnam War, however, some American soldiers placed the ace on the bodies of dead enemy soldiers in hopes of instilling a superstitious fear of the card and those wielding it into their enemies.