The humble playing card has been around for centuries, probably first introduced in Imperial China – and they’ve lost none of their popularity over the years. Decks of cards are widespread, commercially-produced, and relatively cheap. Poker, rummy, aces, tens, cheat, partners, snap, and go-fish are just some of the games I’ve played (and, more often than not, lost) over the years, and they’ve gotten my family through many a rainy holiday afternoon. But, as with a lot of the objects I’ve encountered during my work on the ‘Concealed Revealed’ project, the playing card has accrued meanings and uses that go beyond what it was originally intended for.
Edward Lovett, writing on ‘magic in modern London’ in the early 20th century, reported the use of the playing card as a charm used in the war. A nurse, whom Lovett met at a lecture hosted by the Y.M.C.A in Eastbourne, told him the following story:
“Her father with two of her friends were called up together. The night before they left home they met at her father’s house, and the four sat down to a game of whist. When they had finished the last game the nurse gathered up the cards, tearing the last card on the table into four pieces “for luck,” a piece for each. The youngest man contemptuously threw his piece into the fire, saying that he did not believe in such rubbish.
Some time later the three men went to France. In the first action they were in the man who had acted in the way described was taken prisoner by the enemy, but the other two came through in safety” (1925: 30)
So the playing card was employed here as a good luck charm – one that could be divided four ways, the idea being that each recipient got one part of the whole, linking them with the others. This is very similar to an ancient Roman custom: the tessera hospitalis.
The tessera hospitalis was an object that was produced when two people had shared hospitality; the token would come in two pieces, one half going to the host and the other to the guest. It was intended as a mobile symbol of their bond – much like friendship necklaces are today, often shaped like hearts and split into two or three pendants, to be worn by ‘best friends’ or ‘friends forever’.
So the playing card could have been used a good luck charm in Lovett’s London because it was an easy object to divide into pieces. It was also a cheap object and one that could easily be slipped into a pocket and carried. However, it’s possible that there’s more to the playing card than simple convenience – because they seem to be a category of concealed object, albeit a very rare one.
Margaret Howard, in her catalogue of concealed cats, recorded a case in Bampton, Oxfordshire. The skeletons of two cats were found under the floor of an upstairs landing in a 16th-century house, and alongside them were three playing cards which have been dated to the 18th century. The cats were possibly concealed to protect the house from malevolent supernatural forces – does that mean that the playing cards were too? Howard does admit, however, that the cards may not necessarily have been deliberately concealed; ‘they may have slipped down through the cracks between the floorboards before the second floor was laid down’ (1951: 149).
A house in Chichester yielded a similar find: bricked into a wall was a cache of newspaper cuttings from 1772, school slates, conkers, paper slips, and five playing cards. Judging by the rest of the objects, this cache probably wasn’t intended as an apotropaic (or protective) deposit, but maybe as a time-capsule instead. The building had been a boarding school in the 1770s and it’s not difficult to imagine children secreting away these kinds of objects – in anticipation of future finders or simply for their own amusement. Maybe there was nothing symbolically significant about the playing cards, except that they were part of the everyday lives of the depositors.
What’s unfortunate is that the records don’t tell us what number and suit the playing cards are, which could have been important. I’ve written before about a nine of spades card in the Horniman Museum (follow the link here), which was carried for luck during WW1 and, according to the artefact label, was significant because of the saying ‘luck under a nine’.
The significance of 3×3 is relevant here, so if the playing cards that were concealed were also nines then I’d argue that there was some symbolic or ritual purpose to them. Similarly, an ace could have significance, as could a king or queen. In fact, every playing card could have significance to the individual depositor; it could be their personal lucky number or the specific card that they’d won a game with. Sadly, without the depositors here to question, we can’t know – but if more finds like this come to light then we might have a better chance at guessing. And so, as usual, I end this post with a plea for information. If anyone has come across concealed playing cards, or know of any folklore behind them, then I’d love to hear about it!