a site for the playing card collector
and ephemera enthusiast
a site for the playing card collector
and ephemera enthusiast
This site is for the playing card enthusiast and has been named after Bernard J. Dondorf who was born in 1809 and established a lithographic printing business in Frankfurt Germany 1833 which, amongst other items, printed playing cards. B Dondorf was arguably one of the finest printers of his era printing some amazing playing cards during the company's 100 year history. Ironically it was the quality and expensive production process that ultimately contributed to the the demise of the company in 1933.
Whilst Dondorf playing cards acted as the catalyst and inspiration for me to become a serious collector and remain my main passion, I have developed many new playing card related interests over the years and will share them with you on this website.
This site aims to showcase the very best in collectable playing cards and card games and to share information on the subject. There is also a blog reporting items of interest and details of any cards recently sold at auction, subscribe to receive regular updates sent by email.
Launched June 2018 I hope this site will develop progressively and prove to be of value to all who share in it.
What's new? ....
- The earliest royal commemorative back design?
- Early 16th century cards come up for sale - see blog
- Dondorf's Shakespeare deck an early discovery for me
- Did you know that there is only one queen in the pack and why do we call a tre-foil or clover a club and a spade a spade?
- more from a Georgian scrap book
What's in the news - Blog at the foot of this page - sign up for regular updates..
As George III's third son, William IV did not expect to accede to the throne. He only became heir to his eldest brother, George IV, at the age of 61, when George III's second son, the Duke of York died in 1827. William finally came to the throne in 1830 at the age of 64. there was considerable concern that he would not be fit for the task. However, he acquitted himself well, showing enough sense to accept advice from his ministers during a period of great political and constitutional reform.
William entered the navy as a midshipman at the age of 13 and rose through the ranks to take command of his own ship ion 1786. In 1790 William retired from active service and settled down at Bushey Park, where he lived in bliss with his mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan, who bore him 10 illegitimate children. In 1811 financial difficulties drove him to leave her and begin a search for a wife. He finally married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818. William acceded to the throne on 26 June 1830 and was crowned at Westminster Abbey 8 September 1831.
Is this the earliest commemorative back design produced by an English card maker? This ornate design incorporates the initials 'W' and 'A' for William and Adelaide and was issued to celebrate the coronation in 1831. Articles published at the time confirm the production.
"Coronation cards - among other Coronation productions , Messrs Reynolds whose former performances in the way of beautiful card making we have noticed with praise , have sent out cards, (though they are playing cards) very fancifully and tastefully executed in gold and coloured devices by Messrs Hewlett and Brimmer. The backs are like fine porcelain with the letters W., A , surrounded with foliage and crowns, flags and other ornaments , printed in gold upon them. They are curiosities if too handsome for shuffling, cutting and dealing".
Playing cards published throughout the reign of Queen Victoria
Wrappers more than just paper and string
The beauty of Dondorf playing cards for all to see
In the earliest known packs of playing cards in Europe and particularly from Italy and Spain the four suits were Chalices / Cups (equivalent to Hearts); Swords (equivalent to Spades); Money / Coins (equivalent to Diamonds) and Batons / Cudgels (equivalent to Clubs). The suits seem to represent the flour classes in society:
1. The Ecclesiastics - the highest rank in medieval times
2. The noble or Military
3. The Merchants or Commercial classes
4. The Peasants or Working classes
In the earliest packs from Italy and Spain the suit was 'swords' and sword in Italian is SPADE and in Spanish ESPADA. The French, to simplify the emblem, without losing its military significance made the swords PIQUES that is pike heads. The English copied the pike heads and called them 'spades' meaning all the time 'swords' i.e. SPADE or ESPADAS. You can note that the King of Spades has a fine sword .
In the early French decks the four Queens were 'Judith' (Hearts), 'Pallas' (Spades, 'Rachel' (Diamonds) and 'Argine (Clubs). Argine is the only Queen among them. There was never a Queen called Argine. The name hides the word 'Regina'. The French card makers had to be careful not to offend royalty, but they seem to have treated this queen as the queen of France and sometimes tried to give her a likeness to the queen of the period. They also showed her with the royal flier-de-lis on her robes, taking care always to cover this sacred emblem so that only a portion was revealed.
(from a short history of playing cards by Gurney Benham)
Charles Gibson took over from Christopher Blanchard, one of the early and successful playing card makers in 1769. By the mid 1770's Gibson had joined forces with Gisborne and playing cards with joint names appeared from c. 1774 through to c. 1790. The ace shown here was discovered in a pack complete with wrapper last year and as you can see a word believed to be 'EXPORTATION' has been scratched out. This is an ace for Export as the design incorporates palm leaves in the garter design to the right of the spade sign. The use of 'palm leaves' as opposed to ordinary leaves differentiates aces printed at this time between the domestic ace where a duty e.g six pence, would be seen and no duty mark, common to aces for Exportation. The mystery here is that stamps printed from plates between the years 1769 - 1801 are missing from the Stamp Office records and we have no evidence to confirm whether Gibson & Gisborne ever registered such a design. There are no known examples of Exportation aces for this maker.
The Gibson & Gisborne cards were discovered together with the playing card wrapper shown. It is crudely printed and has no printed text or duty markings of any kind. It may be that there is some text beneath the broad ink lines which can be seen along both sides of the wrapper but nothing is visible to the eye. Where these card to be sold and used domestically without payment of duty, who knows? As both the cards and wrapper are both in exceptionally good and clean condition it is unlikely that they were used much at all....was the owner just too afraid to use them and afraid of being caught?
John Llewellyn took over from the McEvoy playing card maker in c. 1778 and had a relatively short existence in the business to 1785. The Ace shown here was also discovered last year and came from the same source as that Gibson & Gisborne deck although the exact provenance is unknown. Once again we have a garter ace with the design associated with an ace for Exportation but the word 'Exportation' has been scratched out. Again there are no records available to confirm whether Llewellyn ever registered an ace for Exportation at the Stamp Office and no examples of cards for Export are known for this maker.
Wrapper found with cards above. No text or duty markings.
The Lancashire hills that surround Manchester are coloured vivid green for a reason, and it was this ever so slightly damp climate that provided the area with the optimum conditions for the processing of cotton. The moist conditions prevented the cotton fibres from splitting and the resulting streams and rivers powered the water mills that ran the factories.
Raw cotton was imported into the country, mainly from the American cotton fields. Factories in the south o Lancashire spun the threads and the weaving of vast cloths occurred in the towns to the north.
Water power alone however was no longer proving sufficient to keep the wheels of the Industrial Revolution turning. When in 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater opened his now famous canal, coal from the Duke’s mines at the Worsley Collieries could be transported much more easily to Manchester, thus providing a cheap source of power to feed the new-fangled steam engines.
The Bridgewater canal was quickly extended, and by 1776 it had reached the River Mersey, thereby providing easier access to the port of Liverpool. The cost of transporting raw cotton from the port to Manchester halved almost overnight, as did the cost of shipping out the finished cloth.
Before Richard Arkwright built his first cotton mill in 1780, Manchester was barely keeping pace with the needs of the expanding British Empire, particularly the enormous demand of the Indian population for the “dhootie”, a cheap cotton loincloth which clothed the nation. The increased levels of production achieved by the new mills earned Lancashire the title of the “Workshop of the World”, with Manchester becoming known as “Cottonopolis”.
Manchester was expanding at a phenomenal rate and by the mid 1830’s it was widely recognised as the greatest industrial city in the world. In addition to making the machines required for the cotton mills, Manchester’s engineering firms diversified into general manufacturing. The bleaches and dyes required by the cotton industry spawned a substantial chemical industry that would gradually spread across the entire region. Industry requires financing, and so banks and insurance companies flocked to the city to provide the necessary services.
Despite the opening of the world’s first inter-city railway (the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) in 1830), by the mid 1870’s Manchester’s supply lines were being stretched to their limits. In addition, the dues being charged by their ‘friends’ at the Port of Liverpool were considered by Manchester’s business community as being a tad excessive …they pointed out that goods could often be imported and bought from the Port of Hull, on other side of country, at a cheaper rate than via Liverpool!
Whilst the idea of linking Manchester with the sea by a navigable canal and river route can be traced back as early as 1660, it was not until 1882 that Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson brought together the men who could actually make it happen. In June of that year, he met with several other leaders from the Manchester business community, representatives and politicians from local Lancashire towns and two civil engineers to form the basis of a bill that would be submitted to Parliament later that year for approval.
A meticulously organised campaign was launched in order to gain public support for the venture, which pointed out that reduced transport costs to the city and surrounding region would make local industries more competitive and thus help to create new jobs.
Surprisingly, the bill failed to gain any support at all from those ‘friends’ in the Port of Liverpool and as a consequence, was rejected by Parliament on two separate occasions thanks to their objections. The bill was finally passed in May 1885, becoming The Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885. Conditions of the act stipulated that the Manchester Ship Canal Company needed to raise £8 million in share capital to cover the estimated cost of construction of just over £5 million.
With Thomas Walker appointed as lead contractor and Edward Leader Williams as chief engineer, the first sod was cut on 11th November 1887 by Lord Egerton of Tatton, who had taken over the role of chairman of the company following Daniel Adamson’s resignation earlier that year. Adamson had wanted to encourage the widest possible share ownership of the company by raising the necessary funds from ordinary working folk, but resigned after failing to gain support for his plans.
The 36 mile route of the canal was subdivided into eight separate sections, with a civil engineer being made responsible for each stretch. Initially the construction work went well and all schedules were met, but in November 1889 Walker died and after this, further delays due to bad weather and repeated flooding caused serious setbacks.
By early 1891, the canal company had run out of money and with only half the construction work completed, they were forced to seek financial help from the Manchester Corporation in order to avoid bankruptcy. The required funds were approved and released by the Corporation in March that year, in order to ‘preserve the city’s prestige’.
The ship canal was finally flooded in November 1893, and opened for traffic from 1st January 1894. After six years in the making, with an average workforce of 12,000 navvies and almost 200 steam trains hauling 6,000 wagons, the final cost of the project totalled more than £15 million, equivalent today to approximately £1½ billion. Queen Victoria officially opened the canal on 21st May 1894.
Despite being some 40 miles from the sea, the Manchester Ship Canal allowed the newly-founded Port of Manchester to establish itself as the third busiest port in Britain. At its peak in 1958, the amount of freight carried by the canal was almost 20,000,000 tons.
Since then, the traffic on the canal has slowly decreased year on year as the size of modern ocean-going ships has increased. Plans are now afoot however, to revive the fortunes of both the canal and the port, ironically in conjunction with the now ‘old friends’ at the Port of Liverpool through the Atlantic Gateway scheme.
Delightful artwork in playing cards from the turn of the 20th Century
Card games that are a bit different
Playing cards from the Art Deco period
Standard old English playing cards with Duty Aces
Early Illustrated playing cards individual cards or complete sets purchased
Playing cards by Dondorf.
Old or unusual English card games
Pre 1900 commemorative English Playing cards for Royal events
If you wish to enquire about the availability of any playing cards or books for sale or have old / Unusual cards or games for sale then please contact us here.
Playing card valuation and research service also available.
Suffolk, England, United Kingdom
I was familiar with the name of W Gurney Benham as author to the well known book 'Playing Cards' a History of the pack and explanations of its many secrets published in c.1931 but had not realised that he was born and bred in my Home town of Colchester and had been a past Mayor.
Sir William Gurney Benham, FSA, FRHS giving him his full title was born 16 February 1859 and died 13 May 1944. In summary, he was a newspaper editor, published author and three times Mayor of Colchester.
His first job was as a journalist in Wiltshire in 1881. In 1884 he took over the family printing business and began his 59 year editorship of the Essex County Standard. From 1892 to 1929 he edited the newspaper jointly with his brother, Charles Edwin Benham. He is now mainly known for his many publications, many of which are transcriptions of official documents from mediaeval times, particularly those related to his home town of Colchester. He also compiled a number of books of quotations. It was remarkable that he was able to collect and arrange some 50,000 quotations and proverbs. As a printer he had a strong interest in the history of playing cards and published two books on the subject; 'The History and Secrets of the Pack' and secondly 'A Short History of Playing cards'.
Colchester is famous for being the 'oldest Recorded Town in Britain' but also is well known for the Oyster Feast which is held annually in Colchester Town Hall. I was fortunate to find on old Oyster Feast invitation and menu card at local antique fair for sale and was much surprised to see that W Gurney Benham was also a much accomplished artist. I have since discovered two further examples dated 1902 and 1936 both of which have excellent drawings by W Gurney Benham....
A mediaeval scene with lots of famous dinner party guests all with connections to Benham's home town of Colchester.
a selection of catalogues detailing Dondorf playing cards, English Royalty cards issued during Queen Victoria's reign and early English playing cards are available now. Ebooks are available to be purchased and downloaded from the BLURB bookstore
A comprehensive guide to Waddingtons playing cards with back designs by William Barribal available as a free download - see below.
Is your collecting theme Royalty?
or early English playing cards?