The Secrets of Playing Cards – Part 1

03/06/202009:0002/06/2020 08:06Leave a Comment

This week is Volunteers’ Week, an annual celebration of volunteers to thank them for the contribution that they make. So what better time to share this blog by Holly who has helped document some of our old sets of playing cards.

At the beginning of 2020 I began to volunteer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. My task was to sift through dozens of playing cards (fortunately, several at a time rather than individually else I would still be doing them now). Some of the cards and their imagery will be used in a future exhibition linked to Alice in Wonderland.

The imagery on the cards is very beautiful and some date from the mid-nineteenth century, whilst others were created in the 1920s and 30s. It is also interesting to mention that many of the cards have made long journeys from various parts of the world to reach their final destination of the museum. For instance, some have come from locations such as Germany, Austria and Italy, whilst others have found themselves in the UK from places as far away as China.

Lastly, as a historian, I wonder about the people who put so much time, effort and skill in to creating the cards, as well as those who played with them. Questions form in my mind such as where did they live? What people touched the cards and what lives did they go on to lead? With some of the cards being so old, I can imagine that many could tell a tale or two if they could only speak to us. With that being said, I would like to share with you some of the cards that stood out to me and some of the history connected to them.

Gibert, Paris


One of the first set of playing cards I came across were the one’s named ‘Gibert. Paris’. As you can tell from their name they originated from France and were produced between the years of 1820 and 1860. These cards were eye-catching primarily because of their hand coloured images.

‘C-Tesse De Rochefort’ from the ‘Gibert. Paris’ card collection, (1820-1860) STKMG:LH.SH.1985.906

One of the first sets of cards that stood out to me are the one’s named ‘Gibert. Paris’. They originated in France and were produced between the years of 1820 and 1860. These cards were eye-catching because of their hand-coloured images. One of the images that instantly caught my attention was of a woman named on the card as ‘C-Tesse De Rochefort’, which I would assume the ‘C-Tesse’ infers to the French word ‘Comtesse’, which in English means ‘Countess’. The woman in the image clearly looks like a countess and her clothing would suggest she originated from the mid to late eighteenth-century. She looks very similar to the tragic Queen of France Marie Antionette with her white hair swept back in to a chignon, jewellery adorning her neck and ruffles and ribbons decorating her dress. She is in fact a fictional character from the French book ‘La Comtesse de Rochefort Et Ses Amis’, which in English translates to ‘The Countess de Rochefort and her friends’ written in 1879.

‘Chever D’Eon’ from the ‘Gibert. Paris’ card collection, (1820-1860) STKMG:LH.SH.1985.906

Another image is that of a gentleman named ‘Chever D’eon’, who was is fact a real person known as ‘The Chevalier D’Eon’, whose life was very intriguing to say the least. In English, ‘Chevalier’ means a ‘Knight’ or a chivalrous man. Interestingly, D’Eon was both a French soldier and diplomat, who lived in London during the mid to late eighteenth century. However, D’Eon’s story becomes even more fascinating between the years of 1786-1810, as this was the period that D’Eon decided to live as a female.

Portrait of d’Éon by Thomas Stewart (1792), at the National Portrait Gallery.

In England, during the latter part of the eighteenth century there was constant speculation regarding D’Eon’s gender and this culminated in a court trial that declared D’Eon to be in fact female. At this time, the stereotype of a woman disguising herself as a male to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised, thus the notion of D’Eon as a woman was generally accepted. Despite a perceived lack of feminine ‘delicacy’, D’Eon was defended by feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as an admirable example of ‘female fortitude’ to which British women might aspire.

‘Diane De Poitiers’ from the ‘Gibert. Paris’ card collection, (1820-1860). STKMG:LH.SH.1985.906

Another in the collection is the card named ‘Diane De Poitiers’. This card is very striking and the woman depicted in it incredibly beautiful, especially with her style of dress, which I assume would be common for a noble woman living in sixteenth-century France. After a little more research, it seems Diane De Poitiers was also a real person. A noted beauty of the sixteenth-century and royal mistress to King Henri II, Diane lived a fascinating life and is definitely worth a mention from this collection of cards. The playing cards also contain the names of other factual and fictitious historic French individuals such as ‘Comte De Brissac’, ‘Bussy D’Amboise’ and ‘Dame De Monsoreau’, which I compel readers of this blog to research, as all of these individuals lead very interesting lives as well.

Thanks to Holly’s help sorting and scanning these collections, you can explore them as part of our online collections.

Written by museumvolunteers - Modified by Joe Perry (Curator, Local History)

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