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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The New Illustration

(This article originally ran in May of this past year. Dan Blanchette is taking December off. New articles will appear in January 2019.)

I subscribe to The Atlantic, one of the oldest publications in the history of this country. It has thought-provoking articles written by really good journalists. And it has what might be labelled fair art accompanying those articles.

Other publications have good artwork as well, like The New York Times Magazine.

Tim Tomkinson created the image on the left for The Atlantic. It’s a more traditional style of illustration, requiring some actual draftsmanship. The artwork on the right, created by Ryan Snook for The New York Times Magazine, has a much different style.

What’s the difference? And why are they so different? And how do they affect the viewer?

Sure, Tomkinson’s piece accompanies an article about an actual person, Abigail Allwood, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while Snook’s accompanies an article called “Crying at Movies”. But the art director at The Atlantic must’ve felt strongly about using an illustrator whose style was toward realism, whereas the person calling the shots at The New York Times Magazine probably said something like “anything goes”.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the decline of teaching actual drawing and illustration in art schools, which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I mean, things like anatomy and perspective were taught alongside figure drawing when I was in art school. Those things weren’t absolutely necessary for painting disciplines, but they were for commercial illustration.

So I’m open to discussion about why drawing is no longer considered a necessary attribute when it comes to creating qualitative commercial illustration, although I have my own theory why that is.

You see it all the time these days, the newer styles: much more like expressionism than realism. Expressionism plays to emotional reaction. As history will tell us, expressionism in painting came about after the impressionist period in the last portion of the nineteenth century. Impressionists taught the world (or those who visited art galleries and went to art openings) a new way of seeing. And that way of seeing was with your inner eye—meaning your brain—and not so much with your logical, or outer, eye.

Expressionistic art was also done in a time of upheaval in the world: the breakdown of the gilded age of kings and queens, the revolutions in Europe, the world wars. If you’re at all a student of art history, you know of art imitating life. Broad brush strokes (often with a lot of contrast in color), faces with garish angularity, and almost primitive proportions were characteristic of the form.

Snook’s illustration is very cartoony. But you don’t have to look far to see some work done that is not quite so funny in depicting emotion, and much more emoting tension—even anger.

My theory of why this is all prominent now in publicized artwork is that we live in a very changing world. A global economy (with several nations having proprietary resources), tensions around the world (knowing that now many nations have nuclear capability), strong climate changes, immediate news on TV and the Internet. Twitter and Facebook promote reactive activity. Maybe I’m wrong. But something has spurred things along to where commercial illustration is now, to where it reflects all that noise.

There are other factors possible: younger generations have different ideas of seeing the world in art; and for everyone, using computer apps and plug-ins can easily take a photo and transform it into an illustration or even a painting, with textures and warping the perspective. Why would you need to actually draw it first? Is that why we no longer need to teach it?

Because when you think about it, how would you teach a student to think in expressionistic terms? Maybe to them, realism is just too superficial.


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