The Straw Shop introduces a new mystery, which while much is known about them as an object, very little is known for certain about their origin. In 2022, The Straw Shop was first informed of the existence of a deck of playing cards made using straw. They had been stumbled upon in 2015 by Mr. Paul Symons while researching other objects he found in the Deutsches Spielkartenmuseum Leinfelden-Echterdingen (DSM) which is Germany’s Playing Card Museum. At the DSM, Mr.Symons was shown their deck of straw marquetry playing cards and was permitted to photograph them. For this article he has generously shared the photographs of his accidental find for which The Straw Shop thank him.
Mr. Paul Symons of the Netherlands is a Playing Card Specialist and he put The Straw Shop in contact with Mr. Peter Endebrock of Germany. Both are members of the International Playing Card Society. Mr.Symons, enabled contact between The Straw Shop and Dr. Annette Köger, who is Curator of DSM who gave The Straw Shop permission to use Mr. Symons‘ images photographed in the museum.
The hours and skill required to produce one card well, to say nothing of a complete deck of 52 playing cards, is unimaginable! Their provenance tells us that the cards have been part of other collections during their life. Straw on paper could easily crack if bent or chip if shuffled or handled in any sort of card game; whether played by children, women or men. Their survival is remarkable. Due to the fragile and unlikely material combination both Mr. Symons and Mr. Endebrock consider the playing cards were never made commercially, instead made as a novelty. Never mass produced, the novelty cards were likely commissioned.
After contacting several Playing Card and Folk Museums around the world The Straw Shop learned of a second straw marquetry playing card deck held in a different German museum collection. The very existence of straw marquetry playing cards, singularly or as decks, prompted The Straw Shop to investigate further.
DSM houses among the largest collection of playing cards in Europe holding approximately 15,000 decks with over 500,000 individual cards spanning several hundred years, countries, games and continents. Their deck of straw marquetry playing cards is a part of their vast collection, as is a pack of miniature paper cards in a straw marquetry case featured here on the What’s the Deal page. The photographs of several of the DSM cards appearing in this article were first published in The Playing Card, the publication of The Journal of the International Playing Card Society, (Volume 51, No. 3 Jan-Mar 2023). The size of the cards is L 8,6 cm (3.38″) and B 5,8cm (2.28″). The case size is described as L: 9,5 cm (3.74″) B 6,65 cm (2.61″) H 3,0cm (1.18″). The first image shown below from the DSM collection is a complete deck of 52 straw marquetry playing cards. (Accession number DSM B 265.)
The DSM deck of cards on a countertop at the museum reveal the sheen of the straw marquetry cards when photographed. The familiar French suited figures of red Hearts and Diamonds and black Spades and Clubs are seen. The French had been using these four-suit two-colored symbols since the late 15th century until becoming the world accepted standard suit for playing cards in the 1700s. Until the standardization suit designs varied according to location. Germany, for example, portrayed Acorns, Leafs, Hearts and Bells as their card suit symbols. Italy portrayed Swords, Cups, Coins and Batons. Spain offered an interesting mixture of suits in the forms of Clubs, Coins, Cups and Swords.
This is the only image available showing both “pip cards” (or numbered cards) and the “Court cards” (King, Queen and Jack) and 3 of the Aces together. According to their inventory number B265, the straw marquetry deck of cards were once part of the Bielefeld Playing Card Collection (Bielefelder Spielkartensammlung). This collection belonged to a German manufacturer of playing cards(1949-1966) based in Bielefeld, Germany. The Bielefeld Collection has since changed ownership over the years and is now a part of the DSM Collection. According to Dr. Annette Köger no information about this specific card deck exists in available records other than it was part of the Bielefeld Playing Card Collection in 1966.
According to Mr.Symons‘ observation of the straw marquetry playing cards, “They are actually very thin strips of coloured straw pasted on card.” Artistic license prevails in the suit symbols on the cards themselves as their placement at the top of the card is dictated by the Court card’s design. This same artistic license, of moving suit symbols, applied to early printed playing card art as well.
The following images are extremely rare views of straw marquetry playing cards of any sort. In this extraordinary presentation the complete set of 12 Court cards found in the deck are displayed by suit! Are the designs copied from a known deck of cards or inspired by one? It should be noted that at this time, no corresponding paper playing card deck art has being a source for inspiration. The multiple techniques appearing on each card is worth noting.
Why is an animal appearing on the Jack of Spades? Is this symbolic of something? The Jack of Clubs appears to have 6 fingers on each hand. Both of the decks located have finger miscounts according to Mr. Endebrock. Apparently a right handed six-fingered Jack of Diamonds appears in the other straw marquetry playing card deck. The digit miscount on Court cards is understandable as only the suggested appearance of fingers was needed. The difficulty of executing 10 separate digits, 12 times is unimaginable. It’s part of the man-made nature of the decks.
Many of the Court cards share a common symbol despite their suit differences. The shield design, also known as a “herald design” or “heraldic lily” appears throughout the Court cards. This is a French symbol signifying royalty, which gained popularity. This “royal” symbol is found on the DSM Court cards visible here:
Lots of drawn detail creating patterns on the straw’s surface appears on each card. The individuality of each character can been seen. The use of ink with straw work is not necessarily definitive to location or period of time. Germany and France, and other countries, routinely used ink in straw work between the end of the 17th century up to the 19th century. Of 52 cards only one card has straw missing from it which is surprising considering the materials used. The Queen of Hearts’ missing straw area reveals a faint pattern.
The next image shows the back of the playing card, which explains the pattern seen through the Queen’s skirt. The printed, repetitive, pattern is difficult to describe. According to a section in an article, entitled “Playing Card Design” written in 1998 by World of Playing Cards’ Simon Wintle, his discussion offers a better understanding of the next DSM card image shown: “The earliest playing cards had blank backs because of the difficulty of precisely aligning a back pattern with the fronts of the cards during manufacture, without small differences which would permit an opponent to recognise cards from their backs. Of course there was already the problem of the backs being marked with smudges or spots. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as printing technology improved, simple patterns of dots, geometric shapes, sprigs or other small repeating motifs were introduced and gradually perfected on the backs of cards.” This describes this repetitive pattern well. Mr. Endebrock writes, “This is a typical back pattern used for playing cards. I am not sure whether I have seen exactly this pattern before. The card makers sometimes printed the backs themselves, but often they bought printed back papers for their cards so that you may find the same pattern on cards from different makers.” The repetitive printed paper design began in the 18th century? Does the printed backed card suggest the deck was made during the18th century or later? If earlier, would the back have been blank card?
At the time of writing this article no other playing card is known with this particular pattern. Perhaps it was printed by the maker.
Other than knowing that during its lifetime this pack a straw marquetry cards has been held within several collections there is no conclusive evidence pointing to the date of production or their origins.
The second deck is in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum (HAUM) in Braunschweig,(aka Brunswick), Germany.
Dr. Martina Minning, Head of the Applied Arts Department for HAUM responded to our inquiry by forwarding a most interesting reference. Their deck, photographed in black and white appears in, and is described in, a 1997 book entitled, “The Treasures of the Renaissance and the Baroque” -or- “Pretiosa and all sorts of works of art from the art and rarity chambers of the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg at the Wolfenbüttel Home” written by Rudolf Alexander Schutte with additional contributions by Alfred Watz. (Note:Pretiosa means precious).
On pages 215 and 216, Item 216 is described as: “Deck of cards with French suits and a box to store the game German, 18th century Card dimensions: H 9.2 cm; W 6.4cm Dimensions of the box: H 9.6 cm ; W 6.9cm ; D 2.5cm straw, colored and engraved; cardboard; different types colored paper. The straw pads on the box are missing in a few places on the back and on the lid jump; the playing cards are complete (52 cards) and, with the exception of three faded cards, scarcely damaged; under the box sticks the inventory label of the Art and Natural History Cabinet as No.1468. Inv. No. Kos 696, Inventory H 34, No.1468. A deck of French cards; the right side is covered with colored straw. The case that comes with it is also fine straw. The carefully crafted playing cards are backed with colored paper with a hexagonal pattern. The two- piece box which is joined together in the middle is decorated by two similar, transverse rectangles, which are covered with two finely divided straw inlays and each bear a four-pointed star as a central ornament. The box is lined with marbled paper.”
The Card dimensions are: H 9.2cm; W 6.4cm. (H 3.6″ W 2.5″). Present day playing cards are slightly shorter at: H 8.89 cm; W 6.4cm (H 3.5″ x W 2.5″). Cards that are backed with colored paper with a hexagonal pattern? The paper card back design on the DSM deck would not be described as hexagonal. The back pattern of the HAUM deck is described by Mr. Endebrock as: “It is a different pattern of hexagons with faces in them. This is a pattern back often found on the backs of playing-cards.” The cards are backed with colored paper but which colors? It is also understandable the faded bright colors on some of the cards and card box has occurred as natural dyes will fade when exposed to (sun)light.
Printed below the description of Item 216 is: “Literature Führer 1887, S. 202. – Führer 1891 , S. 201. – Führer 1897, S. 270. – Führer 1902, S. 93. – Führer 1907, S.106. – Führer 1915, S.111. – Führer 1921, S. 90”. (Note: Führer means Guide-book). References to the Collection’s Straw Works, such as this amazing deck of cards, has appeared in HAUM’s Visitor Guide-books at various times between 1887 and 1921. It is possible the deck and case have been on display at the HAUM for more than a century; from first opening in 1887 until (photographed in 2019) to the present day.
Within the accession record information the KOS designation refers to “Kostbarkeiten” which translated means “preciosity” or “treasures”. According to HAUM these items:
“were from the former possession of the Dukes of Braunschweig ( Brunswick)-Wolfenbüttel and were kept in the art and rarities chambers collected from Bevern, Wolfenbüttel and Salzdahlum as well as the Castles in Wolfenbüttel and Braunschweig (Brunswick). From 1754 onward, the individual collections were brought together and exhibited in the Art and Natural History Cabinet in Braunschweig (Brunswick).”
In this time, 1432-1735, the Dukes of Braunschweig (Brunswick)-Wolfenbüttel, would have had what was popularly known among the extremely wealthy in Germany as a Wunderkammer. Wunderkammer is a German noun for “a place where a collection of curiosities and rarities is exhibited.”(noted source from Google Translate). In English it is usually referred to as a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. It will remain unknown whether their straw marquetry playing cards were gifted to a Duke or commissioned for a Wunderkammer or both as they are unique art pieces worthy of exhibition as a rarity and curiosity. The collections of rarities from multiple locations, private collectors, cabinets of curiosities, and multiple castle locations ensure the anonymity of the straw marquetry cards’ origin. It is this incredible Collection of Cabinet curiosities that provides the core collection of HAUM. This astounding deck of cards is attributed to being part of the 1754 collection which helped to establish Germany’s first public museum as indicated by the affixed Art and Natural History label. The Wunderkammer rooms or Cabinets of Curiosities were the per-cursors to today’s museums.
The cards could have been made anywhere, by anyone, at any time prior to the inventoried year of 1754. The Straw Shop gratefully acknowledges the pages from the 1997 book with detailed descriptions of their KOS straw collection including the straw marquetry playing card deck sent in response to our inquiry to HAUM about their deck. No additional information about the deck is known. An image of the HAUM cards on display is shown here was located on Google Maps. The image is accredited to Zinaida Brovko’s July 2019:
Mr.Endebrock has been fortunate to view hundreds if not thousands of playing cards over his years of interest in the vast subject of playing cards. According to him symbolism has been found in printed playing card art over the years. Having had the rare opportunity to see both straw marquetry decks either in person or by the images shown here he shares his assessments about them from his expert playing card specialty perspective beginning with an Ace.
Curiously on the DSM deck an added design appears on the Ace of Hearts. Just above the heart symbol, appears a leaping horse. Why would that be added to these cards? Does the horse mean something? Symbols like the horse appear on a similar tax stamp in use between 1744-1809 from the Duchy of Braunschweig (Brunswick)-Luneburg in today’s Germany. According to Mr. Endebrock‘s Playing Card website, on the subject of Playing Card Tax Stamps from German States he writes:
“In Germany taxes on playing cards were first introduced in 1700 in Saxony, with other states to follow later (or not at all). before the unified tax legislation in 1879. The tax stamp was normally on the Ace of Hearts for French-suited cards, and on the Deuce of Hearts for German-suited cards.”
Is the addition of the leaping horse to the card by the maker appearing as a paid tax stamp on the Ace of Hearts card just as if it were a printed playing card? If it is mimicking a tax stamp would that date the deck post 1700 and possibly to the years of the tax stamp duration of 1744-1809? According to Mr Endebrock, “Cards intended to be exported into a different (German or foreign) state normally were not taxed and stamped, but there were strict regulations for storing and transporting them. Depending on the importing state they were taxed and stamped there (or not). So a stamp normally shows where cards were used but not necessarily where they were printed.” Tax stamps were first introduced on printed playing cards in Saxony in 1700 continuing until 1879? The design similarity, admittedly, is curious. This symbol does not appear on the HAUM deck according to Dr. Minning. The example shown next is a paper printed Ace of Hearts playing card stamped with the inked horse image. The next image shows the horse image made from straw and inserted into the card’s surface.
Mr. Endebrock offers the following explanations about the horse and card decks he’s seen:
“This makes me think that the DSM cards were made in the region of Braunschweig(Brunswick) — the faked tax stamp wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. And these cards were obviously made using the model of some existing pack.The HAUM pack has on the Jack of Spades a shield with a “Guelph horse”, similar to the engraved horse of the DSM pack, and on the Jack of Hearts is a shield with a lion that is similar to that used in the coat-of-arms of Braunschweig(Brunswick)-Lüneburg. This is why I think that this pack was also made there. Again, there is no reason why someone elsewhere should use that symbolism.”
It is possible they were gifted to a Duke of Braunschweig(Brunswick)-Lüneburg post the 1754 Duke collections donation and the leaping horse over land symbol a nod to him. If so how did the deck end up in other collections?
The symbol of the leaping horse over land as seen engraved into card was a familiar at one time. Visually the rearing leaping horse symbol of Lower Saxony is a different horse symbol. This symbol, or variations of, is a “horse over land symbol” that appeared on coinage during the Guelph dynasty in Wolfenbüttel. Wolfenbüttel-Braunschweig existed from 1432 to 1753/4.The same symbol continued to appear on Braunschweig (Brunswick) coins, tax stamps, postage stamps which only muddles any origin or timeline. The symbol of a horse leaping over land was found on various German currencies for at least 4 centuries. The examples appearing in the next gallery show the longevity of this quite familiar German “horse over land symbol” in use into the 1900s. Beyond identifying the added symbol to the playing card, what information, if any, has been gained?
When asked the meaning of the “horse over land” symbol, Dr. Minning explained:
“it is always the same heraldic horse and the difference of the grass is due to the artistic capacities.Today in the coat of arms of Lower Saxony the horse looks like this (without grass).”
The leaping horse is now identified as another version of the German heraldic horse of Lower Saxony so provides little information. The symbol was added to the playing card but why, and by whom, and from where is open only to speculation.
Compelled by the rare opportunity to compare the 2 decks, the first observation is the decks are significantly different in size: Card height: DSM:8,6 cm (3.38″), HAUM: 9.2cm (3.6″). There was no standard size of playing cards until the 20th century according to Paul Symons. As to the size difference he offers this explanation, “very old cards were somewhat smaller because of the scarcity of paper, and high costs.” The sizes were determined by their makers which only underscores their uniqueness.
The Straw Shop offers the following observations about the very different Queen of Spades representations. By carefully viewing HAUM’s Queen of Spades, it would appear that the cards were executed by different artists. Notice the Spade symbol placement; additionally each Spade is its own shape of the suit character. The HAUM deck also includes the use of ink, as seen on their Court card. The representations of the other Court cards of the HAUM deck are likely quite different from those found in the DSM deck.
Another suit symbol style comparison is seen in the Club suit. Viewing a DSM Club card with the displayed HAUM example of a Club suited card, the shapes of the Club symbols are also noticeably different from one another.
The final visual comparison is of the two different functioning cases made for cards; one of which lies flat when closed, the other does not. Their case shapes and designs are completely different from one another despite the use of similar materials: straw, cardboard, paper and marbled paper. The DSM case offers two scenes where the HAUM case repeats the star pattern twice on both sides when closed. An unusual straw pattern design similarity appears in the area framing the featured around HAUM’s star design. What does the DSM case reveal?
Upon closer inspection of the DSM case, the straw work seen in this photograph shows the end of the marbled case half decorated with straw.
The cover of the case has a curious number of animals on it. The dyed straw areas have retained some brown and green colors and black ink is visible. The next two images show both sides of the straw decorated half of the card case.
The case decorations framing the palm tree, animals and birds in the center, is beautifully layered by the patterns seen. The straw work is varied on both sides. Do you notice any similarities of straw patterns in the two cases? The similarity of the multiple borders? The floral motifs in the corners, appearing in both cases, was popular in straw work in the 1700s.
Are similar straw colors present on the cards? If the straw work wasn’t particularly informative perhaps the second piece of the case would be. There is more to this second piece than can be seen here. What is seen is a colorful pattern that may have been hand painted on, or it may be a sheet of marbled paper. With the angle of this case, viewed in the next image, the ends are notched similarly and a view of the inside of the paper case is provided. It appears a sheet of marbled paper was wrapped around a paper core as seen in the next photo. Perhaps the marbled paper could reveal some information.
Researching marbled paper history, many European countries participated in its manufacture and sale. Marbled paper originated in Japan and eventually found its way to other parts of the world, such as Turkey, Persia, Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, England and America through trade routes. Marbled paper was an enormously popular trade item, creating professional occupations as paper marblers. Many of the trade routes went through Germany. Germany, more than any other European country created an enormous commercial trade of marbled paper beginning in the last quarter of the sixteenth century that reached a climax in commercial development just before World War I and then declined according to author Phoebe Jane Easton. Collector Phoebe Jane Easton’s 1983 “Marbling: a History and a Bibliography “, further advises with years of marbled paper study, noting the demands by the book binding trade meant:
“to fill this need, marbled paper rapidly became an important item of commerce, and traveled across Europe by the great trade routes to fairs in Leipzig and Hamburg, from whence it was transshipped to other ports. All this commercial travel obscured the points of origin hopelessly.”
Despite Germany’s presence in the commercial trade the marbled paper, like the straw work, reveals little information. No origin. No dating.
Surprisingly, the decks, or packs, represent two different styles of playing card decks due to their symbology according to Mr. Endebrock. One deck shows a:
“Paris pattern pack” (DSM) while the other deck shows a “Lyon Export pattern pack” (HAUM). The two types of the standard playing cards used and produced by many playing card makers in Germany in the 18th century. They had been imported before that — that is why the German makers knew the patterns.”
His analysis of the playing cards is fascinating and only underscores their unique natures by their masterful makers. Each deck is a completely unique style from the other. The reference to France seen in both decks should not be automatically dismissed. France has long history of producing decorative straw objects. It is entirely possible both decks are French in origin as indicated by the multiple visual references. It is unknown whether the decks are contemporary to one another or made decades, or countries apart.
And so the information presently known about each deck has been presented to you. The straw marquetry playing cards may be regarded by many simply as novel and dismissed.These unique one in the world decks, are extremely rare fragile examples of straw art that cannot be replicated, nor repaired. Both decks are described by their respective museums, DSM and HAUM as German made, which is possible due to Germany’s long production association with straw arts, playing card manufacturing and marbled paper production. So much straw work is hidden from wider public view that it is not surprising these two decks of playing cards have not been publicized sooner. The Straw Shop is delighted to learn of their existence and to present this article. Perhaps more decks survive in other collections around the world.
The Straw Shop welcomes additional information and photographs on the subject of straw marquetry playing cards.
The Straw Shop again acknowledges the generous permission granted by Paul Symons and Dr. Annette Köger, Curator Deutsches Spielkartenmuseum Leinfelden-Echterdingen (DSM) for the use of the images of their deck shown here. Also to Dr. Martina Minning, Head of Applied Arts at Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum (HAUM) for sharing their appreciated information about their deck. Additional photos and information gratefully shared by Mr. Peter Endebrock. Thank you to Google Maps picture by Zinaida Brovko, and to Zinaida Brovko for taking the photo at HAUM.
Copyright 2023 Jan Huss, The Straw Shop