Artifact Corner: Playing Card Ball Invitation

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a playing card, the Queen of clubs to be exact. But, this is more than just a playing card, this is also an invitation to a ball. Henry and his wife Betsey were being invited to a ball at Israel Green’s Tavern in their long room. The invite was sent by Louis Ransom, Benjamin Tyler, and Nathaniel Platt, who list themselves as the managers of the tavern. This ball took place in 1806, which was before Henry and Betsey were living at the home here in Plattsburgh. The use of a playing card as an invitation is quite interesting! Let’s learn a bit more about the history of playing cards, and their many uses.

Playing cards were most likely invented during the Tang dynasty around the 9th century AD. The first writing about a card game is mentioned in a 9th Century text from the Tang Dynasty. It describes Princess Tongchang, daughter of the Emperor of Tang, playing the “leaf game” in 868 with members of the Wei clan, the family of the princess’s husband. According to a historian from the Song Dynasty, the rules for this game were lost by the time he was writing about it in 1067. Playing cards found their way to Persia and became very popular, continuing to spread across the Middle East. They then spread to Egypt by the 11th Century, and became widely played. The oldest surviving cards in the world are four fragments from Egyptian playing cards found in the Benaki Museum, which is in Athens, Greece. They are dated to the 12th and 13th centuries. Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the 1370s, probably in Italy or Spain and certainly as imports or possessions of merchants from the Islamic Mamlūk dynasty centered in Egypt. Like their originals, the first European cards were hand-painted, making them luxury goods for the rich. Among the early patterns of playing card in Europe were those probably derived from the Mamluk suits of cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks, which are still used in traditional Latin decks.

From about 1418 to 1450 professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg created printed decks. Playing cards even competed with devotional images as the most common uses for woodcuts in this period. Most early woodcuts of all types were colored after printing, either by hand or, from about 1450 onwards, stencils. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and far more mechanization of production, cards could be quickly and easily printed. It was at this time that we see people using playing cards for all sorts of purposes, other than game play. In 1749 a playing card was used as an invitation to a ball, and in 1765 playing cards were used as admission cards to the classes at the University of Pennsylvania. Also in the 18th Century, the French writer and poet Voltaire left a playing card with a message on the back at a friends house when he found that his colleague was not at home. Playing cards were small and portable, and far more sturdy than regular paper. They were an easy way to leave a quick note.

Most of the cards that were used as invitations to events were often collected at the door of the event, like a ticket. This is why it’s so exciting that we have this card, so few of them have survived, because the establishment would simply throw them out following the ball. Clearly Henry Delord wanted to remember this ball, and that’s why he saved it. It is a fantastic example of early playing cards, and a little glimpse into the Delord’s life in Plattsburgh. We are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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