By the late eighteenth century, master card-makers in France were churning out more than seven million decks of cards a year. Playing cards, new and used, were an everyday presence in the households of the rich and poor, in the city as well as in the countryside. Voltaire used them to invite visitors to attend private theatricals at Ferney, or to send private notes to his female and male correspondents. Rousseau kept them in his pockets during his solitary walks, pulling them out to record reveries that later found their way into his published work. Diderot complained about the appearance of eighteenth-century face cards, noting that it was surprising how poorly they were drawn given the generally good taste of the French in visual matters. These philosophes were not the only ones who took note of playing cards, but their attention to both sides of these ephemeral pieces of paper points to a material and aesthetic sensibility lost today. In eighteenth-century France, the fronts of playing cards were carefully regulated by the royal government, which sought to extract excise revenue for state coffers. The backs of cards, mostly blank in France until the 1820s, offered up empty white spaces to be filled with information, notes, and serious and frivolous forms of communication. Playing cards were much more than gaming accessories in France during the Enlightenment.
Beginning in 1701, the royal government insisted that the design of face cards conform to a standard pattern; examples sporting unauthorised face card designs betrayed the fact that their manufacturers had not paid a stamp tax to the crown. Woodblocks similar to the one reproduced here were kept in the tax collector’s office. Card-makers would bring their specially manufactured card stock to the taxman’s bureau to imprint the outlines of these face cards. They would then return to their shops and colour in the outlines using stencils and paint. Imprints taken from woodblocks by tax collectors were used for verification purposes when inspecting cards found in shops, residences, and gambling establishments. Cards that did not conform to the official design were labelled ‘fraudulent’, and fines assessed. This process of standardisation provided card-makers with little opportunity or motivation to improve the visual appearance of their cards, resulting in misshapen figures on face cards. A king and queen of hearts printed in Lyon in the period exemplify the problem. The figures on these cards have crossed eyes, strangely shaped crowns, and disproportionate bodies. Shop workers have applied colour carelessly to the outlines impressed from the woodblock. No wonder Diderot expressed dismay!
While royal taxation practices led master card-makers to produce bizarrely designed and poorly executed face cards, the king’s subjects nevertheless saved these cards when they were too worn for gaming purposes, flipping them over to repurpose their blank backsides. Paper was scarce and expensive, leading the French to reuse the cards for bureaucratic, commercial, domestic, and reflective purposes. The first library card catalogues were recorded on the backs of playing cards; over 200,000 examples can still be consulted in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. Law clerks reused them as file labels for court cases. Shop keepers and businessmen printed their calling cards on the backs, and the army used them as ration cards. Domestics used them to compile laundry lists, and salon-goers enjoyed flirtatious games based on provocative sayings printed on the reverse sides.
While the Neuchâtel University Library conserves 27 cards with scribbles made by Rousseau during his al fresco wanderings, the Geneva Library houses a cache of 35,000 playing cards annotated by the eighteenth-century physicist Georges-Louis Lesage, who used them to record scientific observations as well as tortured investigations into his own psyche. The backs of these cards, along with many other examples that survive in libraries and archives in France and elsewhere today, provide flashes of insight into lives that are mostly unknown centuries later.
The contrast, therefore, between the fronts and the backs of eighteenth-century French playing cards tells a story about government regulation and everyday life before the Revolution. The recto sides speak to us of significant intervention in the production and consumption of playing cards. To extract revenue from this increasingly popular commercial good, the state regulated manufacture in ways that could not have escaped observant card players. The verso sides, recycled when too worn for gaming purposes, bear witness to both mundane concerns and deeper reflections beyond the purview of the state. These ephemeral scraps of paper manage to combine testimony of privileges claimed by the crown with surprisingly varied perspectives on the material lives and private thoughts of the king’s subjects. They allow the historian to shuffle her deck of historical themes, perhaps coming up with new insights in the same way that Old Regime card players hoped to stumble into profit at the card table.
– Jeffrey S. Ravel
Readers interested in learning more about the history of playing cards in France between roughly 1650 and 1850 may wish to visit this bilingual web site: https://frenchplayingcards.mit.edu/.
 Nicholas Cronk, ‘Voltaire et l’art du texto’, Littéraire: Pour Alain Viala, ed. M. Roussillon, S. Guyot, D. Glynn and M.-M. Fragonard, 2 vol. (Arras, 2018), vol.2, p.243-59.
 Denis Diderot, ‘Cartes (Jeux)’, L’Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des arts, des sciences, et des métiers (Paris, Libraires associés, 1751), vol.2, p.715.