Monthly Archives: April 2019

Playing with maps

The idea that playing cards could be illustrated with maps is a bit surprising, since maps tend to be on fairly large pieces of paper, and most playing cards are pretty small. However, early playing cards were often designed to be decorative and to serve an educational purpose as well as being for card games. So geographical subjects could feature, and these sometimes included maps.
The 39 historic counties of England, and 13 of Wales, together make up the convenient number 52 – the same as the number of cards in a standard pack. This perhaps inspired the first known example of geographical playing cards, a set made in England featuring all the counties, by the mysterious “W.B.” in 1590. Few of these survive and the Bodleian doesn’t hold any. The card maker is believed to be a W. Bowes, probably related to Ralph Bowes who received a monopoly to import playing cards in 1578, but attempts to identify this individual and establish a more precise relationship have been unsuccessful.


In 1676 the mapmaker Robert Morden issued a set of playing cards with maps of all the counties, each one showing a reasonable amount of detail for an area a little over 5cm square. Each little county map shows the main towns, roads, major rivers, and a scale bar, and is accompanied by information on the length, breadth and circumference of the county, and latitude of the main town and its distance from London. Small changes to the plates show that the set was reissued at least twice by 1680; the names of adjacent counties were not on the original version. The maps were also sold bound as a small atlas without suit marks. They were copied and the set issued again by John Lenthall, a playing card seller, around 1717. There was even a later version of the same set published in the 1780s, nearly a hundred years after they first appeared. The cards illustrated above are both from Lenthall’s issue of the cards.

Later in the same year that Morden issued his first set of county playing cards, William Redmayne published a competing set. The maps are very small and poorly drawn, and the suit marks (positioned in the middle of the cards) almost obscure the maps. They do however have more extensive text, with facts about the geography and history of the counties included. Differences in style between suits suggest that more than one engraver was involved, so perhaps the set was produced in a hurry. Despite the limitations of the maps, these must have sold reasonably well as a second set with minor changes came out the following year; again John Lenthall acquired the plates and issued a set some time in the 1710s. Lenthall sold many packs of cards of different designs; contemporary advertisements show that he had over 40 packs for customers to choose from. The cards shown above, from Redmayne’s second issue of the set, show the difference in style and in the amount of written information between cards.
Geographical cards with maps of countries around the world also existed, with the 4 continents then known to Europeans (Africa, Asia, Americas, Europe) serving as the 4 suits. But maps of the English counties seem to have been particularly popular. The maps shown are from the Bodleian’s John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera; the shelfmark is Douce Playing Cards: English Geographical.
There is a detailed analysis of map playing cards of this type published by the Map Collectors’ Circle (“Playing cards depicting maps of the British Isles, and of English and Welsh counties,” by Sylvia Mann and David Kingsley. Map Collectors’ Series No. 87, 1972)

The things you find in boxes

This blog post deals with the strange and wonderful things that sometimes appear in unexpected places. It’s something that happens often, making the job all the more rewarding for it. While having a tidy up in the map storage area we found an old rectangular box. Inside were 3 rolled maps; one from just after World War I by the Geographical Section of the War Office, the other two from 1857 published by the wonderfully named ‘National Society for promoting the education of the poor in the principals of the established Church’. Underneath these three objects was this single sheet of paper.

The translation of the main text is ‘Insignia of Iraqi warplanes, equilateral green triangle with black border, red sign in the form of an 8, white square’. The page comes from a booklet made by the German Army, presumably about Iraq though it could equally be about Syria or the Middle East. Iraqi involvement in the Second World War was brief. The Golden Square, a group of army officers, staged a coup in 1941, deposing the ruling family. British concerns that oil supplies would be diverted to the Axis powers lead to a brief, and for the British successful, war in May 1941.

It is hard to identify where this sheet has come from. Throughout the war General Staff of the Germany Army prepared pamphlet packages on a large number of countries, including all European countries, most of the African countries north of the equator and those in the Middle East, but this sheet hasn’t come from one of these.

The pamphlets included maps, information booklets and books of photographs. The books were usually compiled by academics familiar with the country in question and there are pamphlets produced for neutral countries as well as allies such as Italy and Romania. The earliest pamphlets date from 1939 and were produced in strong red cases, by 1943 shortages of materials meant that weaker card cases were used.

Considering the single sheet deals with airplanes it’s appropriate that one of the maps in the Irak  collection deals with airfields.

Until we can find out where this sheet belongs we’ll put it in the ‘Irak’ pamphlet box, ‘Militärgeographische angaben über den Irak’, 1943. D19 e.1