Playing Cards

“The eighteenth-century French interior…engaged its occupants on two levels: it was a pre-established setting into which social actors inserted themselves, inscribing their conduct within a given frame, and it was also an array of props susceptible to manipulation, a mutable mise en scène continuously redesigned by its cast.”  (Hellman, 419).

French etiquette dominated the world of eighteenth century France. The world was in fact a stage, and everyone had a specific role to play. Tables, chairs, entire rooms—and even playing cards, were used as “props” that were at the “actors’” disposal.

Only the wealthy were lucky enough to have des loisirs, or leisure time. They would play games like Bridge, Pharaoh, Basset, Poker, Hombre (an ancestor of Bridge), Cavangnole, and many more. Many of the games mentioned are games of chance. Although it may

Figure 1 La Partie de Wisch

have been illegal, the wealthy did engage in gambling, but most people would simply play cards as a game of pleasure. In LA PARTIE DE WISCH (Fig 1), the players are placed in an intimate setting in broad daylight. This indicates that the actors depicted in this print are elite persons engaged in a legal card game and enjoying each other’s company.

Cards were made in shops specializing in card making. They were made with high quality paper. At the time, the French made their paper out of old rags of linen. The patterns and pictures on the cards were drawn with stencils and painted by hand (Fig 2).

Figure 2 Hand painted cards

The final stage in the making of the playing cards was cutting the individual cards from the original large sheet where the cards were drawn and painted (Fig 3). The stencils for the cards were likely to be made of paper.


Figure 3 Uncut sheet of cards

The stencil patterns were cut out and designed with the equivalent to a modern hole-puncher. Contrary to modern methods of production, all items necessary for the production of card making were also produced by the same people who produced the produce. Card makers would produce their own stencils (Fig 4) and dye for cards (Fig 5) within their shops. Playing cards were an under-rated art form that, at the time, could not be appreciated for the great effort put into the production of each deck. It is only now that we can look upon these cards and value for what they are—art.


Figure 4 Card maker shop and uncut sheets, l'Encyclopédie

Figure 5 Card template, l'Encyclopédie











Portner, Jessica. “Paris Gamblers: Gaming in 18th Century France.” Web log post. N.p., 20 May 2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <>.

Bernier, Oliver. Secrets of Marie Antoinette. Garden City: Double Day & Company, Inc. 1985. Print.

Sanders, John R. “Faro: Favorite Gambling Game of the Frontier.” Wild West Magazine. 12 June 2006: n. pag. Wild West Magazine, 12 June 2006. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. <>.

Hellman, Mimi. Eighteenth-Century Studies. Vol. 32. N.p.: Johns Hopkins UP, 2011. Print.


Playing Cards. 18th Century. Photograph. George Glazer Gallery. New York City.

Pages from History. N.d. Photograph. McGill University, Montreal.

“Card Maker.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2010. Web. [fill in today’s date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of “Cartier,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 2 (plates). Paris, 1763.

Diana Rodriguez