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Why ace of spades is so ornate and other aces are not?

Posted October 26, 2018

Playing cards are incredibly popular. They are part of the culture that is enjoyed across the entire world. Playing cards is something most people have in their homes and have used them since childhood. But have you noticed something weird about them? Why ace of spades is sometimes a completely different design than other aces?

Ace of spades is much more ornate than other cards, but it is the highest card in the deck. Image credit: Enoch Lau via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Playing cards are artful, but simple at the same time. All these symbols are very well-known and people give them different meanings in different games. However, there is consistency across the entire deck of the cards, except when it comes to the ace of spades.  This card is very ornamental and it is different from one pack to the other. Do you want to know why?

Well, let’s start from the very beginning. Ace of spades is the highest card in the deck. That, of course, differs from game to game, but there pretty much isn’t any higher card that the ace of spades. Kind of England James I and later Queen Anne imposed laws requiring the ace of spades to bear an insignia of the printing house. That was because card manufacturers had to pay taxes – so called stamp duty was applied. Various methods were used to show that the tax was paid, including a physical stamp on the highest card of the deck, which is, of course, the ace of spades.

That is how it all began. From around 17th century card manufacturers started putting their identification marks on the ace of spades and it quickly became a tradition. In fact, some designs were so intricate that they were patented in order to protect them from illegal copying. Even when no makers mark was required, tradition remained and most playing cards of today have a very ornate ace of spades.

By the way, because ace of spades is the higher card in the deck, it was used as a symbol of various military units since the Second World War. Its popularity between the military personnel reached its peak during the Vietnam War, when American soldiers used this card as a mean of psychological warfare. There was a belief that Viet Cong soldiers are afraid of the ace of spades because it is a symbol of death. That, by the way, is not true. However, American soldiers started throwing these cards around and leaving them on the bodies of dead enemies. This practice became so common that boxes of aces of spades were ordered just for these purposes alone.

Iraq War’s most wanted – the ace of spades was dedicated to the president Saddam Hussein. Image credit: Sgt. Karen Sampson via Wikimedia

Cards were used during the Iraq War in 2003 as well. However, these cards were special – they were decorated with pictures of leaders of Iraqi regime. Of course, the ace of spades was dedicated to the president Saddam Hussein.

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