Like most letterpress-loving people, we are drawn to the fascinating and the intriguing. This newest installment of the Inquisitive Printers focuses our attentions on cool history of playing cards (and Nintendo!) plus a portable printing museum, a Miami-based high school teacher and printer, and much more. Enjoy!
Nintendo’s release of the latest Pokemon video game is not where I thought I’d find my printerly inquisition focused this month, admittedly; bear with me and I’ll lay out why it’s tickling my fancy so.
Pokemon began as a GameBoy title, but at the turn of the millennium it reached an outstanding level of cultural clout in its incarnation as a strategy and trading card game. Many of my generation heeded that none-too-subtle imperative “gotta catch ‘em all” filled school recesses and study hall periods with sharp-eyed trades and tournament play.
While it was never quite my scene, I did admire the quality finishing that went into the cards, with the full-color printing and foil embellishment on the various rare specimens. A much greater fascination to me is the fact that the entire Nintendo games empire had its beginning as a manufacturer of playing cards all the way back to 1889!
(Photography courtesy of blog.beforemario.com)
This culture-defining behemoth of our video game era plugs directly backward into the larger and wilder story of playing cards, which themselves are deliciously wrapped up in the origins of the printing arts themselves.
Squint at them and you can see how dice, dominoes, and chess games are the simpler, sturdier parents of playing cards. For there to be cards, there has to be paper and printing, and so, of course, the first playing cards emerge in China. Unfortunately, since paper is so fragile and cards are objects much-handled, the earliest examples don’t survive into history. An early reference to their existence comes in 1294 A.D., documenting the arrest of two gamblers and the confiscation of both their game cards and the woodblocks that printed them. These cards weren’t merely for making wagers with, but themselves actually served as tokens exchangeable for money or drinks at the tavern: valuable collectible items, indeed!
Papermaking, printing, and playing cards traveled as a pack from China to Samarkand (Uzbekistan), then on to Baghdad to spread across the Mediterranean through the Muslim caliphates and the remnants of the Byzantine empire. Taking shape in Egypt and exported quickly across trade routes into Moorish Spain, the Arabic “mamluk” card game had already assumed a form familiar to the modern playing deck: 52 cards, arranged in four suits, ordered by ranks culminating in royal court figures. “Mamluk” means “property”, referring to a class of enslaved mercenary soldiers within the prevailing caste system. Puts one in mind of the more disturbing aspects of the Pokemon life cycle, with trainers “catching ‘em all” then making them fight each other for the trainers’ glory. (Just sayin’.)
(Photography courtesy of wopc.co.uk)
By the 14th century, these playing cards were spread across Europe and quickly became nativized. Mamluks easily translated into the aristocratic ranks of Europe’s feudal system, and those original four suits — polo sticks, swords, cups, and coins — mutated based on local culture. Spanish, German, Swiss, and Italian styled suits survive into the 20th century right alongside the French style we in the Anglo-American world are most familiar with: clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. (Tarot enthusiasts will note that those original mamluk suits are exactly those that became our beloved and much-mystified oracle deck, but that also-very-printerly story needs another time for telling.)
(Photography courtesy of wikipedia.org )
As the printers of Marseilles, Nürnburg, and Venice stamped out the cards in varying grades of quality, so too did the traders vend these printed goods to the world. Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in 1543, carrying Iberian playing cards in their holds. The Portuguese word “carta” became the Japanese “karuta”, and caught on well among the wealthy samurai. The isolationist Tokugawa shogunate soon banned them as a foreign influence, however, and so playing cards in Japan took on their own particular evolution, as printers and gamers worked around the restrictions.
Variant decks multiplied, fusing older indigenous Japanese gaming traditions and innovating new ones. Some of those older traditions involved matching paintings on shells, or poems on squares of wood, and translated easily to paper cards. These poetry cards and other literary variants became popular educational tools for children.
The card ban wasn’t formally lifted until late in the Meiji period, when Japan was “westernizing”. Clandestine cardplayer Fusajiro Yamauchi founded Nintendo in 1889 and began manufacturing the popular Hanafuda (“Flower Game”) deck, which has 12 suits of 4 cards each.
(Photography courtesy of user digitalhypnosisi (via imgur.com)
I imagine that Nintendo, innovative from the start, was among those early 20th century card manufacturers to produce “obake karuta”, card decks depicting mythological monsters (“obake”) and their names and attributes. Sound familiar?
(Photography courtesy of horrorjapan.tumbler.com)
After the Second World War, Nintendo also began making western-style playing cards and began to branch out into toys and other goods. The first mega-hit toy product was, uncannily enough, an extending arm based on the pantograph — another printing-related hit in the story. From there, toy-making brought the company into electronics in the early 1970s, and from there, card pips turn to pixels and then once again we come to Pokemon.
So from East, to West, to East again, and then to global cultural dominance, the humble playing card moves, shakes, and shapes the world. Are we ultimately so sure it’s us playing them, I wonder, or is our game perhaps also playing us?
Based in Miami, Florida, printer/teacher Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press appears on the Art & Company podcast. He talks about introducing the tangible craft of printing to students in the classroom and about the future of printing at large. Come take a listen!
Next up is the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule project. This nifty concept is a printing (and history) lover’s dream. It is a small, portable collection that celebrates type & printing.
The Museum contains unique printing artifacts & resources spanning decades. The fit-on-your-bookshelf Museum features cast pieces of hot-metal, wood, and metal foundry type, scale-model replica of a California Job case and many more items to discover.
The project is helmed by Seattle, Washington-based Glenn Fleishman and in collaboration with many artists, printers, museums, and foundries.
We hope you explore some of our links and perhaps share in our enjoyment about what intrigues us here at Boxcar Press. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the things that inspire you as well!