Bicycle Rider Backs (808s): A Closer Look

We’re beginning this series on playing cards with the most popular card maker and brand in history, the US Playing Card Company and their Bicycle cards. (Click on the images for higher resolution art.)

Corner detail

First, a little history. US Playing Card was founded in Cincinnati in 1867, Russell, Morgan & Co began as a general printhouse, but in 1880 they started making playing cards. New machines were designed, and about 20 employees set about making 1,600 decks per day.

The Bicycle brand was introduced in 1885, and by 1891 cards had come to dominate so much of their business that they changed their name to US Playing Card Company. They grew partly through acquisition, standing over several card companies with brands dating back to 1833, among them the famous Bee brand.

Detail: Naked Cycling Angel

Bicycle is the most recognized card brand in the world. Over the years the design has changed, but a few things have stayed common, such as the naked bike-riding angel on the card backs.

Why is there a naked bike-riding angel on the backs? It’s just one of the mysteries of the universe, so let us never speak of it again. (The angel was probably meant for luck, as a Guardian Angel, and the bike was possibly just an example of a piece popular technology from the time.)

There are a number of Bicycle versions, with different colors, different kinds of bikes, and different card back designs. The most ubiquitous are simply known as Rider Backs, or “808s” from the brand number, and are the standard poker-faced design. These come in numerous configurations, such as Bridge (smaller size), Pinochle (48 cards, 9 through Ace, doubled), Poker, and so on, but all share similar card back and face designs.

Joker Detail

The distinctive Ace, featuring a symbol of lady liberty, has it’s own bit of lore, as USPCC explains:

The Ace of Spades served a famous purpose in the war in Vietnam. In February, 1966, two lieutenants of Company “C,” Second Battalion, 35th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, wrote The United States Playing Card Company and requested decks containing nothing but the Bicycle Ace of Spades. The cards were useful in psychological warfare. The Viet Cong were very superstitious and highly frightened by this Ace. 

The French previously had occupied Indo-China, and in French fortunetelling with cards, the Spades predicted death and suffering. The Viet Cong even regarded lady liberty as a goddess of death. USPC shipped thousands of the requested decks gratis to our troops in Vietnam. These decks were housed in plain white tuckcases, inscribed “Bicycle Secret Weapon.” The cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids. The very sight of the Bicycle® Ace was said to cause many Viet Cong to flee.

Detail: Ace of Spades

Bicycle cards are cheap but durable. The basic cards are coated paper with a matte finish that offers a nice grip. They’re not too slick, like Aviators, and they hold up reasonably well. They’re easy to find for $2 to $5 a pack, and are made entirely in the USA. This is your basic deck of cards, and if you don’t have some in your home, you really should.

I’m going to do some more of these detailed posts because I think these items are wonderful examples of the printer’s art, but we often don’t pause to really look at them. I’ve scanned these at a very high level, and adjusted the images to emphasize the lines and colors, so click on the images to see the details.

You can still enter to win two packs of World Series of Poker branded Bicycle 808s from State of Play.

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One thought on “Bicycle Rider Backs (808s): A Closer Look

  1. Thanks for the article. And thank you so much for the pictures of cards. I am doing a project house of cards and needed a quality texture. Thank you!!!

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