What Is the Origin of the 4 Suits in a Deck of Playing Cards?

They Weren't Always Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades

Dice, four aces and poker chips, overhead view
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Where did the four suits in a deck of playing cards come from? The symbols on a standard deck of cards are called pips, and they now have the four suits of hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. Further, hearts and diamonds are red while clubs and spades are black. But these suits and colors had a long history of evolution.

It is commonly believed that the four suits in a deck of playing cards derive from French decks of cards that were developed from the Germanic suits around 1480. They, in turn, had developed from the Latin suits. The names we currently use stem from English names, some of which carried over from the Latin suits.

Latin Suits

The Chinese are believed to be the first to use suited cards, which represented money. Their suits were coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings, and tens of myriads. The Mamluks of Egypt modified these and passed them along to Europeans in the Middle Ages, around the 1370s. The Latin suits were cups, coins, clubs, and swords. The word for sword is spade in Italian and Espadas in Spanish, and that was retained in English. The ranking of suits probably ultimately stems from the Chinese tradition, which was more directly linked to a value.

Germanic Suits

In German-speaking lands, the Latin suits were modified in the 15th century. Around 1450, the Swiss-Germans used suits of roses, bells, acorns, and shields. The Germans changed these to hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves.

French Suits

The French suits we use are a variation of the Germanic suits. They kept the hearts, but instead of bells, they used carreaux, which are tiles or diamonds. Of interest, there was a crescent suit instead of diamonds before the French settled on diamonds. The acorns became trèfles standing for clovers or clubs. Instead of leaves, they had piques for pikes or spades.

In one legend, the French suits represent the four classes. Spades represent nobility, hearts stand for the clergy, diamonds represent the vassals or merchants, and clubs are peasants. In the German tradition, bells (which became the French diamonds) were the nobility,  and leaves (which became the French clubs) were the merchant middle class.

England Gets Playing Cards from France

French cards were exported to England around 1480 and the English carried over their names for clubs and spades from the older Latin suits. It wasn't until 1628 when import of foreign playing cards was banned in England that they began to produce their own cards. The French Rouen designs of the face cards were reworked by Charles Goodall and Sons in the 19th century to give us the common designs seen today.

Beyond their original symbols, you will find more interpretations of the suits to use for fortune-telling. These may not be found in a long tradition. In the "Deck of Cards" story, they are equated in some versions with the four seasons.