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House of Cards

Everyone loves a good card game: Poker, Bridge, Go Fish – you name it.  All who play understand the basic premises – kings are higher than queens and each deck has four suits. But suppose one day the cards dealt a different hand: acorns instead of clubs, dancing jesters instead of jacks, floral patterns instead of the numbers one through ten. At the Beinecke Library, there are hundreds and thousands of these cards – cards that speak their own language and make their own rules.

The Beinecke began its acquisition of playing cards in 1945 when Mrs. Samuel Fisher donated a set of decks dating back to the fifteenth century. But it wasn’t until the wife of Melbert B. Cary YC ’16 donated her husband’s expansive collection after his death in 1967 that this card catalogue really came into its own.  Throughout his life, Cary, an American graphic artist who spent his life assembling a rich spread of decks from all corners of the globe, showed an appreciation for all things quirky. In addition to his eccentric and eclectic card collection, he founded the Press of the Woolly Whale, a private publication that only printed unique and marginalized texts. Cary was not concerned with glorifying the already famous; instead, he wanted to explore the underappreciated.

Cary’s passion for the peculiar is exemplified in his anthology of cards: hand-drawn Apache decks, cards designed with cryptic Austrian lithographs, Amos Whitney Co. aces that enigmatically read, “Use but don’t abuse me. Evil be to him that evil thinks.” Among the Beinecke’s 2,600 decks are cards originating from 26 different countries and spanning hundreds of years of card-making, from 16th century France to contemporary America.

The cards are categorized not only by their geographic and temporal origins, but also by whether they are playing or collector cards. This distinction is what that makes cards valuable cultural artifacts for scholars. “I was intrigued by the concept of making a definite distinction between cards [manufactured] for actual playing and cards created for aesthetic purposes,” says William Keller, the librarian responsible for cataloging Cary’s collection. “Recognizing the difference was the key to figuring out how to describe the collection so future researchers could extract the cultural meaning important for their work.”

The design of standard playing cards—the ones found on blackjack tables, in household game drawers, and up the magician’s sleeve—has never gone through dramatic changes. The non-standard collector cards, on the other hand, can be read as unique statements about the culture of the time. As Timothy Young, a curator at the Beinecke, notes, the design of non-standard cards is often as much a political and social statement as it is a creative one. “Through playing cards, one can read historical trends, the development of printing technology, the commemoration of events and phenomena, and the mindset of people at play,” Young says. The presidential campaign deck from 1892, for example, could be an invaluable artifact for a historian of the period. The natural hierarchy of a suit also lends itself to social commentary. “The playing card is a kind of societal mirror,” Keller explains. The immense breadth of the collection offers scholars a means of comparing socio-political artifacts from different eras and locations, an opportunity to compare card packs issued in a particular geographic region, for example. Through comparison of the court cards and other elements, one discovers differences that may relate to the contemporary material culture.”

The dialectic between standard and non-standard extends beyond playing cards. “Folk art has a linguistic and cultural dimension that is very different from the aesthetic concerns of high art,” Keller points out by way of comparison. “These two strands of development are part of larger-scale modes of interpreting language and culture.” Even though serious analysis of cards may seem eccentric, their study reveals an important distinction between objects meant for a purpose and those meant for visual appreciation. Keller insists that his time with the collection helped him to “develop a theoretical toolkit that aided my later study of the history of art and architecture.”

Yet the very consistency of “standard” cards contain a telling cultural narrative. Hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs unite the college kid on poker night with the grandmotherly bridge adicianado and the card sharks of yore. By deeming a standard playing deck as worthy of collection as a tangram-decorated English deck from 1795, Cary endowed cultural significance to objects both average and unique. His collection at Beinecke thus invites students to look for historical narratives not merely in their textbooks and course packets but in the materiality of the every day.

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