News & Events
Playing Card Exhibit at MHC’s Renfro Library
That standard deck of 52 playing cards is classic and timeless, right?
Not so, according to Dan Koster, reference and public services librarian at Mars Hill College. Koster is the researcher and collector behind an exhibit now on display at the college’s Renfro Library, which chronicles the many varieties and uses of playing cards over a period of approximately seven centuries.
The exhibit, which is free and self-guided, includes around 30 display frames and cases throughout the library which compare and contrast various kinds of cards used through the years. The exhibit incorporates the history and evolution of the standard playing deck. Displays include comparisons of similar face cards through the years, the development of the Ace of Spades and Joker cards, color prints of rare cards from around the world, cards in unusual shapes, decks of cards used as advertising devices and many other variations.
Cards used for children’s games, from Old Maid to Pokémon to 3D science fiction fantasy cards, are included in the exhibit, as are collectibles like baseball cards. Even tarot cards from the 15th century to the present are included, with historical information about connections between standard cards and fortune telling.
“Playing cards provide a fascinating window on approximately 700 years of history,” Koster said. The earliest table top games were played in Eastern countries using dominos or tiles; then, in the 14th century, similar games began to be played in Europe using pieces of paper.
“That timing coincides with the development of mass production printing,” he said. “So when you look at playing cards you’re also chronicling the history of printing from the 14th century to the present day.”
Another evolution which Koster notes is societal attitudes. “Because cards have always been used by ordinary people, the designs and illustrations tell us a lot about what different cultures and eras have considered to be normal. Some of the earlier Old Maid cards, for example, exhibit stereotypes of race and gender that we would consider insensitive and outdated today, but at the time were considered acceptable,” he said.
Above all, Koster said, he chose playing cards as the subject of this exhibit "because they are so visually varied — they are tiny, beautiful works of art."
The exhibit will be open for viewing from now until May 8, 2013. Renfro Library is open daily. Hours are: Sunday, 2 pm to 10 pm; Monday-Thursday, 7:45 am to 10 pm; Friday 7:45 to 4 pm; and Saturday 12 noon to 4 pm.