Colonial Gaming: I. Hardy Cards

Cards were far and way the most popular pastime for people of all classes and genders in the 18th century. Records show tavern keeps buying dozens of packs of cards at a time.

As far as we can tell, all of them were imported from England, with heavy tariffs on each pack. The English cards were printed by woodblock on heavy stock, and then hand painted. There were no card “backs” as we know them today: the opposite side of the card was simply left blank.

One deck that survived was the “Great Mogul” deck made by I. Hardy in England 1765. An original resides in a museum at Colonial Williamsburg, but just about every vendor in the town carries a handsome reproduction set.


In this deck, the suicide king has already lost the head of his axe. The court images are fairly rough, as you might expect of wood-block prints. The lower ranks have no numbers: only pips in suit. People must have held their cards differently in the 18th century, since you can’t form a standard fan and still read the rank and suit.

Particularly of note is the wrapper, which had to seal each new deck of cards. (Some version of these wrappers were actually still used in Great Britain until 1960.) It bears an embossed Royal seal, and the words “£10 penalty selling any Playing Cards unlabel’d. £20 penalty selling or buying any Label or Wrapper used before. Seller or Buyer of Label or Wrapper used before informing will be indemnified.” Each pack required payment of a duty.

The inner wrapper bears the more extreme warning “For exportation. 50 pounds penalty if relanded and 20 pounds if sold in Great Britain.” 50 pounds was about 20 pounds more than the annual salary of a member of the American middle class at the time.

In other words, you’d be punished for not having properly labeled cards, for reusing the wrapper, or for trying to bring the cards back to Great Britain. And you had to pay a duty on each deck. Every wrapper was a reminder of the hated stamp act. It’s easy to imagine card-loving Virginians getting irritated every time they opened a new deck.

Sometimes it’s the little things that lead to Revolutions.  

Update: I understand that some people have found these offered on the internet as originals, sometimes even looking worn down and “aged.” The likelihood of real sets of these cards popping up on eBay is almost nil. If someone is offering them as originals, you are being hoaxed. They have also been passed off as period reproductions of Civil War cards. Civil War era cards would have looked nothing like this.

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