Playing Cards Redux












Today, even with so many electronic devices, files, and resources, we still consume paper by the quire and ream. It is difficult to imagine a time when paper was scarce, but centuries ago it was. After being used for the first time, paper often had a second life. Binders, for example, frequently reinforced the spines of books with used newsprint or printer’s page proofs.




And so it was with playing cards. Early on, the backs of cards were blank, chiefly to save on production costs. Consequently, secondary use was not uncommon. As far back as the 15th century the blank sides of cards were eventually printed, painted, drawn, and stenciled on. They were also pierced, trimmed, and glued onto other surfaces. In America, during the 1700s and 1800s, playing cards were recycled as invitations to balls. Very few have survived the years. After all, they were valid only on a certain date and particular time, usually one person’s name appeared on them, and when the ball was over there was no reason to save the invitation—unless, of course, it was retained for sentimental reasons. Those that were kept could have been used as bookmarks, put into scrap albums, or simply left in drawers. The ones that have come to us today reveal something about our country’s social past.












An article from the Boston Evening Transcript of February 14, 1912, reads:


Those Used in the Berkshires 100 Years
Ago Written on Playing Cards

[From the Berkshire Courier]

Miss Grace Whiting has in her possession several curiosities in shape of ancient ball invitations. Some of these are printed on the back of playing cards and these old time cards, in vogue over one hundred years ago, appear to be hand made after a somewhat crude pattern as contrasted with the cards of today. The cardboard used is a rough unglazed surface. One of the cards reads as follows:


Miss Whiting is requested to attend a Ball at Captain Pynchon’s BALL ROOM on Friday evening next, at 6 o’clock. Gt. Barrington, Dec. 24, 1810.

There were many occasions for balls. The one Captain Pynchon invited Miss Whiting to was undoubtedly to celebrate Christmas Eve. Otherwise, balls marked such events as other holidays, the completion of school semesters, elections, festivals, the change of seasons, and exhibitions.












Winterthur Library has five playing card invitations to social events and one other playing card ticket. Three of them, from 1804 and 1805, were in the name of Patty Carter, who was invited to balls in Weathersfield and Charlestown, both probably in Massachusetts. Another, dated 1809, requested the company of Mr. Charles Duncan, “solicited at Capt. E. Putman’s Hall on the evening of the 7th inst. At 5 o’clock.” From 1773, “Robert Roberts presents his Respects to Doct. Tho: Parke and desires his Company To-morrow, at the Liberty Fishing House, on Schuylkill.” Finally, William Smith invited Jonathan Beatty to a course of lectures at the College of Philadelphia—now the University of Pennsylvania—beginning on March 4, 1771.

We trust that a good time was had by all.

E. Richard McKinstry is the Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian.

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