A brief history of

Themed and Commemorative Playing Cards...

THE ENGLISH have long enjoyed a tradition of publishing packs of specially illustrated playing cards to commemorate the reigns of monarchs and great or notorious events, or simply for pictorial pleasure.

In 1672 Robert Morden, a map maker, realising that the number of counties in England and Wales came to 52 - the number of cards in a pack - had the clever idea of publishing playing cards which illustrated each county. It sold very well and other publishers soon grasped that the middle classes, while wary of frivolous card playing, would buy such educational packs.

The earliest political edition was produced in 1679 to commemorate the Popist Plots. In 1688 The Glorious Revolution, the bloodless victory of William III over the Catholic James II, was celebrated in a pack of cards containing scenes from James's reign, such as the
  murder of the Earl of Essex and the hanging of Protestant rebels in the west Country. These naturally showed James in a poorish light to justify William's coup (as a publisher required a licence to make and sell playing cards, it was essential to follow the correct political line). In 1702 a pack was published commemorating events in the reign of Queen Anne. And in 1707 a pack appeared celebrating Marlborough's victories; this also featured fanciful portraits of the kings and queens of Europe.

Later editions of such cards included infamous events from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, to some jolly scenes of Victorian murder. The tradition is far from dead. In 1983, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London commissioned four leading artists to caricature the then major politicians of the four main political parties - Tory, Labour, Liberal and SDP - in a pack commemorating the 1983 General Election.
  Bird Playing Cards have continued to publish commemorative packs - most recently a pack celebrating Winston Churchill's triumphant wartime years (pub. 2003 - with the Imperial War Museum) and a pack commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day (2004 - also with the IWM).

But there are risks, one can fall foul of officialdom. In 1995 we published the late Willie Rushton's Pack of Royals - to less than universal acclaim. A humourless Lord Chamberlain thought Willie's witty, cheeky caricatures of the Royal Family seditious and wanted them destroyed, and Willie bunged in the Tower.