collecting playing cards

The purpose of this section is to provide the reader with some background on the hobby of collecting old playing cards.  The material has been extracted from the Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards and discusses:

 

COLLECTORS AND COLLECTING

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 noteworthy that there now seem to be more collectors of old and unusual playing cards than ever before.

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. There certainly seem to be more and more collectors and many of them are specializing, some by inclination and some by the need to focus their limited resources.

Collecting playing cards can be a very rewarding hobby. There is the excitement of the hunt for new decks, whether through collectors' meetings, internet auctions or at shows and flea markets where every new table may unfold the unexpected treasure. Even better, there is the enjoyment of fellow collectors, some of the most interesting people in the world. 

There are a number of clubs supporting the playing card collecting hobby. Two of these are essentially American clubs, albeit with many overseas members; 52+Joker, a club for deck collectors with an emphasis on American cards and The Chicago Playing Card Collectors’ Club which caters to both deck and single card collectors. In Europe there are a number of clubs and England is the home of the International Playing Card Society, a group with members from around the world, whose main emphasis is on education and research into the history and use of playing cards. 

CONDITION

Like any collectible, condition plays an important role in desirability and thus in value. We would all like our decks to be sparkling mint and still in their original wrappers and/or boxes. Unfortunately, most decks that collectors find have seen at least moderate use and have probably lost some element of their desirability.

While terminology relative to assessing the condition of playing cards has not been standardized, most collectors would agree that “as issued” means the deck was found in about the same condition as when it left the factory. Perhaps it had been opened but never really taken from its packaging, and certainly never played with. If even the slightest element, e.g. a cellophane wrapper, is missing from an otherwise pristine deck, it could not be classified as ‘as issued’ – rather it would be ‘mint’. If the missing element was of more consequence it would likely be further downgraded.

A system we use to describe decks of playing cards is as follows:

·   As issued – a complete deck, in mint condition, with all cards, jokers and extra cards contained in the original packaging when first distributed for sale. It might be unopened or carefully opened for examination, but not played with. If applicable, the tax stamp, not necessarily unbroken, would be attached.

·   Mint – a complete deck showing no signs of use. Normally all cards would be present as would the original box in mint or near mint condition. The inside wrapper would not need to be there.

·   Excellent – a complete deck that has been occasionally used, but still in first class condition. Gold edges would still be intact and you would be proud to use this deck in your game.

·   Good – A complete deck showing signs of repeated use, but still useable. There would be no serious creases or bent/broken corners. The deck would not be swollen or misshapen and would fit comfortably into the original box.

·   Poor – A deck not good enough to fit into one of the above categories. It likely would have at least one of these serious faults - bent or broken corners, bad creases, heavy soiling, etc.

·   With Faults – A deck in one of the good to as issued categories, but with a serious fault like a missing or damaged card or a damaged, incomplete or missing box.

These descriptions have stood the test of time. Many collectors have introduced variations into their cataloguing, e.g. ‘mint plus’, ‘mint’ and ‘mint minus’. In addition, it has become popular to describe the condition of a deck’s box as OB1 (basically mint), OB2 (some damage but complete) or OB3 (quite heavily damaged and/or some portion missing). Nonetheless, use of the above descriptions and a careful notation of anything that is missing will provide an appropriate listing for cataloguing or selling purposes.

To hear a discussion recorded in January 2010 with the Dawson's on condition, click on the following link to a website dedicated to magic and playing cards developed by a well known magician and collector named Lee Asher. You will find a wealth of other interesting information on these subjects in his comprehensive site.

http://www.leeasher.com/playground/articles/playing_card_conditions.html

In all attempts to grade a deck, it is important to describe everything that is there and anything that is missing. For example, a brief description of an early advertising deck might read as follows:

“Advertising deck from 1910 for Dawson ’s Old Time Ale. Mint condition, in original box (slight damage to flap) with dated 2¢ U.S. revenue stamp. 53 cards with advertising Ace of Spades and special advertising Joker. The extra advertising card is missing and the Club Jack has a small smudge”.

A note on missing cards. The extra cards over and above the regular 52 and Joker(s) are clearly of less importance and a deck lacking one is hardly devalued, although the extra cards in wide advertising decks (which usually depict a factory, a separate ad, a price list, etc.) are more important. Again the pips in an important deck, especially one with unusual or non-standard courts, are of lesser importance than the courts. The Ace of Spades or Joker, if missing, creates the most serious deficiency.  

Despite most people’s desire to collect only as issued, or perhaps mint, decks, collectors will still rejoice at finding a deck in only, say, good condition if it is high on their want list or quite scarce. Often it will be purchased with the expectation that the same deck in better condition will one day replace it.

 

DATING PLAYING CARDS

The following material, designed to assist collectors in dating their U.S. decks, is produced here courtesy of 52+Joker. It appeared originally in an article by Margery Griffith, then Curator of the United States Playing Card Co. Museum in Cincinnati, in their quarterly bulletin “Clear The Decks” in April 1991.

"At first tax stamps on cards would seem an ideal way of pinpointing the date of manufacture of cards. This feature, however, has an area of inaccuracy ranging from zero up to 50 years or more, bearing in mind that old stocks of cards may not be released for many years; the blocks may be reused time and again, or even sold, the purchaser then making further packs."

Sylvia Mann made this statement in her book, All Cards on the Table: Standard Playing Cards of the World and their History. Ms. Mann spoke primarily about European cards, however the same holds true of their American descendants. For example, while re-examining our American cards in the process of cataloguing the USPC collection, a Samuel Hart deck was discovered dated 1868. It bore a 5 cent tax stamp (1872-83) covered over by a smaller 2 cent stamp (1894-1917). The cancellation overprint was "AD 1910" indicating that the deck was sold by Dougherty (not NYCC!) in 1910, showing a possible 40 year lapse between its manufacture and its distribution!

While the dates given in the tax chart appearing below are generally accurate, additional information is necessary to use the chart effectively. In addition the cancellations on decks can help pinpoint the date of sale.  

The tax rates, per deck, were as follows:

1862 to 1864           2 cents

1872 to 1883           5 cents

1883 to 1894           nil

1894 to 1917           2 cents

1917 to 1919           7 cents

1919 to 1924           8 cents

1924 to 1940           10 cents

1940 to 1941           11 cents

1941 to 1965           13 cents

In addition to the standard revenue stamps issued by the U. S. Government, there was another grouping of playing card revenue stamps that one rarely sees on a deck. These are the Private Die Playing Card Stamps issued from 1864 until 1883 when the revenue tax on playing cards was repealed.  Under the Revenue Act of 1862, manufacturers were permitted, at their expense, to have dies engraved and plates made for their exclusive use. This method gave the manufacturers a slightly lower cost and the advertising value of the proprietary stamps could not be overlooked.

There are 16 different stamps in the Scott catalogue, numbers RU1 - RU16. They are listed below, along with their issue dates and total production, which indicates the size of the companies and number of decks made in that period:

RU1 - Caterson Brotz & Co. - 5 cents brown - first produced in 1882 but never issued - only 3 known

RU2 - A. Dougherty - 2 cents orange - May 1865 to July 1866 - 800,500 issued

RU3 - A. Dougherty - 4 cents black - December 1864 to September 1866 - 515,250 issued

RU4 - A. Dougherty - 5 cents blue (20x26mm) - August 1866 to 1877 - 12,450,428 issued

RU5 - A. Dougherty - 5 cents blue (18x23mm) - 1878 to 1883 - 7,980,983 issued

RU6 - A. Dougherty - 10 cents blue - December 1864 to May 1866 - 442,700 issued

RU7 - Eagle Card Co. - 5 cents black - 1880 to February 1883 - 1,800,900 issued

RU8 - Chas. Goodall - 5 cents black - November 1870 to August 1875 - 1,155,200 issued

RU9 - Samuel Hart & Co. - 5 cents black - Sep­tember 1866 to 1877 - 8,129,053 issued

RU10 - Lawrence & Cohen - 2 cents blue - July 1865 to July 1866 - 1,149,750 issued

RU11 - Lawrence & Cohen - 5 cents green - July 1865 to March 1874 - 8,116,600 issued

RU12 - John J. Levy - 5 cents black - March 1867 to January 1873 - 3,124,840 issued

RU13 - Victor E. Mauger & Petrie - 5 cents blue -1877 to October 1880 - 1,021,020 issued

RU14 - New York Consolidated - 5 cents black - 1876 to March 1883 - 10,063,000 issued

RU15 - Paper Fabrique Co. - 5 cents black - June 1873 to October 1880 - 3,986,710 issued

RU16 - Russell, Morgan & Co. - 5 cents black - May 26, 1881 to March 22, 1883 - 1,304,100 issued

The different denominations result from the rates of tax during the period. While the tax was normally 2 cents to 1872, and 5 cents from 1872 to 1883, it is in reality more complicated than that. According to a series of articles written on these revenue stamps in 1931-32, the tax rates varied with the retail price of the playing cards from 1862 to 1866. The precise rates were as follows:

1862 to 1864

packs @ 18 cents or less - 1 cent

packs @ 19 to 25 cents - 2 cents

packs @ 26 to 36 cents - 3 cents

packs @ 36 cents or more - 5 cents

1864 to 1866

packs @ 18 cents or less - 2 cents

packs @ 19 to 25 cents - 4 cents

packs @ 26 to 50 cents - 10 cents

packs @ 50 cents to $1 - 15 cents

From 1866 to 1883 the rate was 5 cents a pack.

Keen readers will have noted that only Dougherty had a 10 cent stamp in the period 1864-66. The only other manufacturer with a private die stamp at that time was Lawrence & Cohen who would use two (or more) 5 cent stamps. In fact they had a 5 cent stamp when there was no 5 cent tax rate exigible! The other 5 cent stamps were all printed after the 5 cent rate came into existence in 1866.

Another dating aid, very useful for decks manufactured by United States Playing Card Co., was a dating code placed on the Ace of Spades at time of manufacture. This code was first published in Part V of Hochman. The code first came into use in 1904 and it applies only to Aces of Spades that bear a letter plus a four-digit number. Combinations with fewer numbers have no meaning for collectors.

The letter code is as follows (updated from the original article):  

A

1920

1940

1960

1980

2000

B

1921

1976

1996

 

 

C

1922

1941

1961

1981

2001

D

1942

1962

1982

 

2002

E

1923

1943

1963

1983

2003

F

1924

1944

1964

1984

2004

G

1904

1925

1945

1965

1985

H

1905

1926

1946

1966

1986

J

1906

1927

1947

1967

1987

K

1907

1928

1948

1968

1988

L

1908

1929

1949

1969

1989

M

1909

1930

1950

1970

1990

N

1910

 

 

 

 

P

1911

1931

1951

1971

1991

R

1912

1932

1952

1972

1992

S

1913

1933

1953

1973

1993

T

1914

1934

1954

1974

1994

U

1915

1935

1955

1975

1995

W

1916

1936

1956

 

 

X

1917

1937

1957

1977

1997

Y

1918

1938

1958

1978

1998

Z

1919

1939

1959

1979

1999

Right from the beginning in 1904, the same codes were used by National Playing Card Co. and New York Consolidated Card Co., subsidiaries, by then, of USPC.  Andrew Dougherty and Russell Playing Card Co. also used these codes, as they became part of USPC in 1907 and 1929 respectively.

Around 1965, USPC began the practice of "pre-facing" some decks, especially Congress decks. A supply of faces could be printed and stored and the backs could be added as needed. Therefore, Congress cards and any other pre-faced brands stopped using the codes altogether.

Decks were taxed based upon the number of cards per deck, jokers and advertising cards being exempt. One stamp was required for a deck of 52 or less cards; two stamps for decks from 53 to 104 cards (e.g. 64 card pinochle decks; double bridge sets required each deck to be wrapped and sealed with a stamp.

The cancellations on these stamps can be very useful to the collector, if not in determining the date, at least in identifying the maker. This is especially important for advertising or souvenir decks, or any deck which does not bear the maker's name but that of a publisher.

From 1940 to 1941 the tax rate was raised twice, from 10 to 13 cents. In order to disguise this increase, the government issued stamps saying "1 pack". Decks with the "1 pack" stamp can date anywhere from 1940 to 1965.  Finally on June 22, 1965, the tax on playing cards was revoked”.

The use of tax stamps can be a very useful tool in dating a deck. Unfortunately, the collector often finds a deck where the tax stamp is missing or so defaced that it is illegible. In these cases the codes used by the USPC family of companies are helpful for decks produced between 1904 and 1965. Other sources of information include books, manufacturers and playing card collector club publications.

STORING AND DISPLAYING

It is important to take good care of your collection and handling and storage of your cards are key elements of proper care. When showing or looking at your decks be careful as you handle them, especially as you remove or replace them in their boxes and wrappers. In fact, many collectors store old wrappers in albums rather than risk damaging them as they look at their decks.

There are a number of stationery and archival stores where the packaging you need can be obtained. We can’t emphasize too much the importance of using good archival materials (albums, wrappers, boxes, etc.) in storing your decks, especially your old and rare ones. After all, playing cards and their packaging are paper products and paper deteriorates with age. We owe it to ourselves, and those coming behind us, to do our absolute best to make sure our decks stay in the condition that we found them in for as long as possible.

There are a number of ways to store decks, including archival boxes, cases and spool cabinets or other chests with flat drawers. Decks that have no boxes should be packaged in some kind of protective cover, whether a plastic box, a paper wrapper, homemade box, etc. Elastics, unless of the new archival type, should never be used on a deck as they deteriorate with time and can cause considerable damage. Again, proper storage helps decks stay in their present condition longer and helps preserve them for the enjoyment of future collectors.

 

CATALOGUING

Most collectors like to know what they have in their collections, so they record references to entries in playing cards books and keep track of values and other pertinent information about their cards. With the advent of the personal computer this has become a relatively easy task and most serious collectors now use some kind of computerized cataloguing system. Others use home developed cataloguing systems based on recipe cards, notebooks, etc.

It is normal to have at least the following information about your collection available for each deck:

·        Manufacturer

·        Brand name, including brand number, and the name of the deck, if applicable (e.g. Congress #606 - Moonfairy)

·        Date of issue

·        Box, wrapper, etc., whether or not there

·        Number of cards and missing cards, if any

·        Condition

·        Type of deck (e.g. standard, advertising, souvenir, etc.)

·        Cost and/or value

·        Hochman or other reference

·        Other pertinent data (e.g. gold edges, damaged cards, etc.)

·        Catalogue reference number

 

VALUING OLD PLAYING CARDS

Gene Hochman, in Volume I of his Encyclopedia in 1976, included a price guide for all the decks listed. Oh, that we could purchase these for the prices he quoted at the time!  For the 21st Century, a separately bound price guide is available as an accompaniment to the Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards in which we use three of the categories discussed earlier to describe the listed decks. These are:

·   Mint – a complete deck showing no signs of use. Normally all cards would be present as would the original box in mint or near mint condition. The inside wrapper would not need to be there.

·   Excellent – a complete deck that has been occasionally used, but still in first class condition. Gold edges would still be intact and you would be proud to use this deck in your game.

·   Very Good – A complete deck showing signs of repeated use, but still useable. There would be no serious creases or bent/broken corners. The deck would not be swollen or misshapen and would fit comfortably into the original box.

Prices for decks in the other categories can be interpolated from those shown. For example, a deck that is ‘as issued’ would command a premium over the mint price. Conversely a deck that is poor would be worth less than a ‘very good’ one, and one with faults would likely be subject to a significant discount.

There are still quite a number of decks where the number of known copies can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Many of these are in museum collections and many of the very early decks, listed ‘mint’ may not even exist in that condition, but the category is priced on the basis that one or more may become available in the future.

When using the Price Guide in determining the value of any deck of cards, keep in mind that, while it has been compiled from auction lists and decks offered for sale by antique dealers, internet and other auctions, rare book shops and private collectors, prices are nonetheless somewhat subjective. As sales of rarer decks are few and far between, a particular collector’s desire for a certain deck can often result in an unrealistic price. Or, the sudden entry on the market of a few copies of a scarce deck can result in sales at prices substantially less than previously obtained.

The Price Guide attempts to take note of decks that appear to be present in most collections and those that are scarce and wanted by many different collectors. Prices must also be based on the number of collecting fields an individual deck might encompass. For example, a baseball deck would appeal to baseball nostalgia collectors as well as playing card collectors. An advertising deck from the Columbia Exposition might be sought by World's Fair and advertising collectors as well as those in our field. In the final analysis, scarcity of the item, the law of supply and demand and condition will determine the price.  

Some advice for both buyers and sellers. “advice to buyers .... if you see a deck that you really want for your collection and you have an opportunity to buy it, and the price seems higher than the listed value, remember you may never find another .... and if you do, it will probably be for more. Even if you overpay slightly, it will not be long before the value will surpass the purchase price. Advice to sellers .... using a Price Guide as ‘the price’ you must get, will result in many lost sales. You must find a collector looking for a particular deck and willing to pay your price. It may pay to wait, but if you must sell quickly, be prepared to take less.”

The demand for old and rare playing cards far exceeds the supply, and we have all experienced regret, on occasion, for not paying the additional dollars necessary to purchase a scarce deck that we have not had another chance to buy.

The prices of standard decks are more difficult to estimate than those established for popular categories such as transformation and insert cards, souvenir and railway cards and advertising decks. Non-standard decks usually have beautiful and/or interesting courts, can be of historical significance and often appeal to more than one group of collectors.  

A final point. We believe that values for good decks will only rise. Scarce items only become scarcer, and as more people realize the joy of collecting playing cards and become serious collectors, the demand for old and scarce decks, especially ones in excellent or better condition, will continue to grow and drive prices upward.

 

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