Friday, May 21, 2010

Photo Essay: Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards

The worshipful companies in London are trade guilds. I belong to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and that means I am a freeman of the City of London. It sounds more impressive than anything else or an actual benefit, but it allows me to elect representatives and do some more bits and bobs. But back in the middle ages, this provided the professional structure of the city, allowed the city to stand up to the monarchy and established the beginnings of a middle class. There are 107 companies and some of them are really interesting. Here’s a photo essay which relates to the makers of playing cards.

This display case is in the Guildhall, the seat of the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

This document is the Charter forming the company which was formally provided by King Charles I (yes, the same fellow who lost his head) in 1628 and just below the document are the two seals of the company. You can click on every photo here to see a larger resolution of the photograph.

Interestingly, from this date on, all imports of foreign playing cards was stopped and customs officials were told to confiscate the items. Protectionism, eh? Works every time! Anyway, they protected the trade and in return, the company paid two shillings per gross of playing cards to the King and further one shilling per gross to the officer who sealed the pack of cards. This payment continued till 1960. Shows how extraordinarily long lived these taxes are. Can you imagine? This is the coat of arms of the company. You can actually see the painting of Charles I on the top.

Here are some examples of the playing cards that were made. But by and large, the company now concentrates on charity and educational activities along with some card related activities such as Bridge Competitions.

Some more examples, from the left, a commemoration of the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620, the first moon ride by the astronauts of Apollo 15, Halley’s Comet (see the red comet at the top of the 3rd card?) and finally the circumnavigation of the world by balloon. You might think that this is an anachronism, but playing cards contain a fascinating history of human kind, with the paintings on them being a great record of human activity. See the wiki entry on this topic, absolutely spell binding. How they arrived in Europe from China and India via the Middle East is a fascinating journey. How these cards were used not just for playing, but were also used for making political statements, etc. And then from there we now end up with a situation that you and I play FreeCell and solitaire on our computers. The Worshipful Company played a small but crucial part in this part of Human History.

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