18 MAR 2024

The Devil’s Picture Books and Wild West Magic

Playing card and magic history

This episode we take a peek at the devil’s picture books – a name given to playing cards. We start with Chinese accounts dating back nearly 1000 years then go via beautiful Mamluk designs to Thomas de la Rue industrialising the printing process 100 years ago. But what are playing cards without magic? We meet one of Anton’s namesakes, Anton Zamloch AKA Zamloch the Great! He put on fantastic magic shows in the late 1800s, touring America with his blend of magic, mayhem and mischief!

Playing Card History

Long before we cards of any form in Europe they were being used in Asia. China may be able to lay claim to producing the earliest ancestors to today's cards.

The ching-tsze-tung, a Chinese encyclopaedia from 1678, states that cards were invented in the 1120s during the Song dynasty as an amusement for concubines.

Even early cards had features we’d recognise today such as faces and varying numbers of symbols.

As cards travelled west they reached the Islamic countries, adapting and changing with each culture, taking on their symbolism and arts. These beautiful Mamluk cards may have entered Europe in the 1400 - 1500s via traders in the Mediterranean. Another entry route was via the Moors in Spain, with European nations soon adapting the designs to their own customs and iconography.

Chinese, Mamluk and Italian cards spanning hundreds of years keep a common features such as the sword imagery.

The floral designs on the Italian card are clearly influenced by the Mamluk designs.

Certain improvements in making, or manufacturing, and ornamenting playing cards

Thomas de la Rue’s patent

As printing technology evolved so did playing cards. In England, 1831,Thomas de la Rue filed a patent with several innovations to printing cards including using letterpress printers instead of woodblock.

Cards were becoming both better quality and more affordable. He would commission designer Owen Jones to design the card backs which were usually left relatively plain prior to this point.

Each card back forms a dainty little picture, worthy of being regarded as such, irrespective of the main purpose of the card

Charles Dickens writing on de la Rue’s cards

Zamloch the Great

Anton Zamloch, A.K.A Professor Zamloch, A.K.A Zamloch the Great not only shares a name with this podcast’s very own Anton but he also shares a love of magic!

Zamloch was one of the leading magicians of his age, touring the wild west in the late 1800s, and putting on astounding shows that dazzled and amused.

Born in Austria, he was packed off to America and became a printer, but after several years he decided he was to be a magician and began touring and performing. The truth of his Austrian heritage may have been exaggerated on his promotional playbills.

Amusing and Mysterious! ZAMLOCH The Great Austrian Wizard From the Imperial Court of Vienna In a Series of New and Marvelous Wonders, etc.

Zamloch was a gifted showman and mixed comedy with magic in what feels a very modern way.

But his trickery wasn’t confined to the theatre, he would visit local newspapers to drum up support for his shows by performing for the journalists. On one occasion this nearly got him shot!

Further reading


This transcript is automatically generated so may contain errors.