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While selling games from the past at Renaissance fairs and historial reenactment events I've often been asked why the traditional French suits of hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds have become the international standard. Recently I found a partial explanation...
During the 1400's Germany was a major producer of inexpensive playing cards. Although German printers experimented with a wide range of suit signs, cards using the primary traditional German suits of bells, acorns, leaves and hearts can still be found today. The early decks were produced through wood-block printing and then stencils were used to add colors. One of the problems with those symbols was that they needed black outlines and detail lines to make it clear what they represented. Also, many early German cards had little incidental illustrations on every card in the deck, thus all of the cards in a deck needed at least a two-step printing process.
French suit signs appeared about the 1480's, and because they were simple one-color shapes and included no additional illustrations, all the pip cards could printed quickly, with a couple of strokes of a stencil brush instead of having to print the black outlines, wait for the ink to dry, and then stenciling additional colors to fill in the details on every card. Only the 12 face cards in a French deck needed more than one step to be printed. This made French suited cards quicker and cheaper to print.
As a result, during the 1500's France became a major exporter of cards to England as well as various areas of continental Europe. By the 30 Years War (1618-1648) France had even taken over exporting cards to several countries that had previously used German-suited cards probably by virtue of the lower cost of production for French decks, as well as the fact that simpler designs made them easier to recognize quickly, especially in a dark tavern, or candle-lit room.
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