Playing Card Pips & the Heart Symbol—a History Lesson

Ever wonder where playing cards got their pips? Ever wonder how the heart symbol came to be?

Playing cards has been in my personal experience for as far back as I can remember. I learned playing War as a child, games such as Hearts and Canasta in high school, Euchre and Spades in college, Contract Bridge in the Army. My wife and I and our relatives play Bridge and Euchre all the time today.

For anyone learning to play card games, however, it becomes a curiosity to find just how those symbols came to denote the four basic suits. The answer is as clouded in history as any legend ever was, as it turns out. There are many sources of information on this topic, and depending on where you look, different stories.

Most sources believe that card playing itself started in China around the eighth or ninth century. The form was “paper tiles”, more like dominoes than actual cards, but as cultures across borders became mixed with trade routes, places like India and Arabia picked up the practice of card games and the form developed into a more durable substrate. Eventually the games made their way into Europe, but that practice wasn’t always considered just games.

As most everyone knows, the church was the most dominant of governance centuries ago, and the clergy saw devilish aspects in such practices, especially with regard to the Tarot practices in France and in eastern Europe. Plus other card games were an easy way for thieves to trick unsuspecting people. Bait and switch, sleight-of-hand, and “magic” made things “disappear”, and the law was right around the corner to prosecute the offenders. Shell games and two-headed coins and other forms of trickery were always being invented to try to gain the advantage, but cards made things a little easier because they were ready-made. Some governments plainly outlawed the playing of card games for many years. A Paris law from 1377 forbade the playing of card games on workdays because the pastime got out of control—everyone was playing cards.

And the pastime grew across all classes, whether they were noblemen, butchers, horse traders, or prisoners. Plus the various countries developed common symbols on the cards, further making it easy to play when traveling across borders. Some countries used bells as pips (Germany), while others like France started using things like diamonds. The Atlantic states in a recent article that historians believe the pips depict the four classes of Medieval society: hearts (for the clergy’s cups and chalices), spades (from the swords of nobility and the military), diamonds (from the merchants), and clubs (from the batons of the peasants or even the policean occupation long considered low class). These became the standard, based on a centuries-old French interpretation.

The heart, however, has its own strange history. While I was in design school, there was a rumor circulating that the heart symbol—which looks not at all like the internal organ—was a graphic depiction of sensual portions of the female anatomy. But it was only a rumor, and further investigation proved this to be false.

Heart-shaped leaves were used in artistic drawings from ancient times—from around the fourth century BCE—in what is now Pakistan. The heart shape was used to depict seeds from a long extinct plant known as Silphium, which grew in some Mid- and Far-Eastern countries, including what is now Libya. An ancient coin with that symbol is shown in the visual at bottom left.

The heart symbol itself is also classified as an ideograph, meaning it’s a glyph depicting a concept. A 1250s depiction of what some believe is a heart symbolizing romantic love is shown in an art miniature. That miniature is shown above at bottom right, where a man offers what appears to be his heart to a woman, professing undying love. There is some disagreement among scholars as to the exact shape being offered in that miniature and what it actually could be, however. The title of the manuscript that features that miniature is entitled “Novel of the Pear”, suggesting that the object could be a pear. I’ve seen some pears and even peaches that take on the shape very similar to that of a heart.

The “scalloped” shape of the heart was first used in a 14th century miniature, dented at the base (bottom), and used as a motif (repeating pattern). This was the first indication of the now familiar glyph, although upside down, which later, through different usage, became right-sided with the dent on top and its point now downward. That design has prevailed and been used on playing cards since the late 15th century.

As to the similarities in actual historic usage (Silphium plant seed on the ancient coin) and the stylized graphics supposedly drawn from features of the female body, these are merely speculative and hold no basis in fact.


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