INSIDE THE CARDS: Ace of Spades has a long history of being top card

February 22nd, 2014 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under General

Most playing cards look the same from deck to deck. But the Ace of Spades is different. Aside from the backs and jokers, the Ace of Spades is usually the only card to feature a unique artistic design, depending on the printer of the deck. Some are simple as a paint sample, others are as ornate as a stained glass window.

Our custom decks of playing cards feature some of the most iconic recognizable aces in playing cards today. Our designs for aces quickly expanded into themes that encompassed entire decks, and that trend caught on like wildfire — today, collectors frown on new decks that feature only a custom ace.

We’re proud to be part of playing card history. But it raises the question: How did the Ace of Spades get to be so different?


Blame taxes. Before 1765, decks sold in England were stamped to indicate that taxes or duties had been paid on them, according to the International Playing Card Society. In 1765, an official ace of spades was printed; each deck had to use this stamp on its ace to indicate that taxes were paid. And the Stamp Tax mandated that the American colonies had to pay the same tax. The law changed in 1862, when printers were allowed to produce their own stamp designs. Though that law was abolished in 1960, the tradition of making the Ace of Spades ornate and decorative remains.


The law that allowed printers to design unique Aces led to those printers developing brand trademarks. Several of those Aces, such as the ones found in Tally-Ho and Bee cards, are still in use after more than 100 years. Several card publishers, including Dougherty, New York Consolidated Card and Russell/Kalamazoo, used several different designs according to the brand of cards, according to information from “The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards.” But one printer treated the Ace differently…


…the U.S. Playing Card Co., makers of the legendary Rider back cards used a single design for most of its brands. The design is iconic: It features a woman with sword and shield in her right hand and an olive branch in her left. The design was inspired by Thomas Crawford’s sculpture “Statue of Freedom,” which rested atop the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., in 1865. Though other design elements have changed, the basic spade and woman have remained intact for almost 150 years.


Ellusionist’s first custom deck of playing cards was the Black Tiger, a tribute to Tigers, the first deck published by the USPCC. The Black Tiger Ace matched the company’s ace exactly. When Ellusionist printed its next custom deck, the Bicycle Ghost, it included an intricately designed Ace that revealed more details when turned upside-down. Though Ellusionist gaff decks had custom aces that could be swapped into a red or blue Rider back deck, the Ghost ace was Ellusionist’s first custom ace for a custom-themed deck. This started a long line of custom playing cards created by Ellusionist, where the theme quickly stretched way past the ace.


The Ace of Spades is immortalized by British metal band Motorhead, which in 1980 released “Ace of Spades.” Lead singer Lemmy Kilmister in 2011 told Mojo magazine that the song was “just a word exercise on gambling, all the cliches.” Though it peaked at No. 15 on the UK’s singles chart, it is regarded as one of the best metal songs of all time. VH-1 named it the 10th best hard rock song of all time in 2009.


The Ace of Spades has long been considered the highest-ranking card in the deck, but only one major card game gives it top rank: Spades, the trick-taking game. Hearts, poker, crazy eights, rummy, cribbage, even solitaire have its value tied with other aces, or secondary to other cards.


Perhaps the place where the Ace gets most of its prominence is with magicians. Sure, we see performers work their favorite cards into tricks, but we also see those same magicians at some point produce an Ace of Spades as part of their routine — mainly because it is such a recognizable, beloved card. The card is also one of the most commonly chosen by spectators: We know a lot of magicians who, when asking spectators to think of a card, avoid the Ace because it would be too easy.

INSIDE THE CARDS is an occasional feature that dives into the history of a single card. Know any good legends behind cards? Let us know. Comment below or e-mail

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