Playing cards have been known since at least the early 1300’s, and it is a safe wager that almost since that time there have been people who were fascinated enough by the card images, artistry and folklore surrounding the cards to collect them. Certainly by the 17th century there were collections housed in museums and we can speculate that individual collections abounded as well. It is not the place of this comment to describe the many fine collections that have been accumulated in museums and private hands over the centuries, but is noteworthy that there now seem to be more collectors of old and unusual playing cards than ever before, and a growing number of people are building collections of modern decks, especially with new designs and finishes.
Although basically meant for playing games, cards have been used for many other purposes. Their use as an advertising media has grown steadily. They have been used for Fortune Telling, by charlatans, for centuries. During World War II, they were used to instruct and help teach Aircraft recognition. Decks have been designed to aid the traveler in communicating in foreign languages. Legends are told of their use as a prayer book and an almanac.
Collectors, whether casual or serious, fall into several categories. Firstly, there are those who collect complete decks of cards and those whose primary interest rests in collecting single examples of playing cards, whether for a court card, Joker or back interest. Then there are those who collect playing cards related to another main interest, for example Coca Cola whose advertising decks are highly desired by Coke collectors, or gambling paraphernalia where American collectors like to add Faro or Steamboat decks to their displays.
Within the deck collectors group there are many different divisions. For example we have collectors who collect decks from a certain country, or countries. Those who only add non-standard designs to their collections are another group. We have people who collect only certain categories – like decks that advertise products. Then there are those who collect only old and antique cards. And recently we have seen a large number of collectors on the search for new designs, which has spawned an amazing number of designers – some great, some good and some, well not so good! The list goes on, and on, and on.
Regardless of what you collect, there is something out there for you. The trick is finding it! For the collectors of antique and vintage decks, one has to look to antique shops and shows, auctions, eBay, trading with fellow collectors, conventions of playing card clubs and societies, etc. For those with an interest in new designs, the internet and trading with fellow enthusiasts seem to be the main marketplaces.