What Do the Playing Card Suits Represent?

They weren't always hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades

Deck of playing cards


Adam Gault / Getty Images

Throughout the centuries, various countries have adapted card decks so that the colors, emblems, designs, and even the card names better reflect customs and cultures. In the United States in particular, the symbols on a standard deck of English cards are called pips, and modern decks currently display the four suits of hearts and diamonds in red, and clubs and spades in black. But these suits and colors had a long history of evolution.

The Beginning

There's no definitive authority on when the playing card was first developed. However, early reports suggest that the first playing cards may have been used as early as the late 1200s in China and the late 1300s in Europe. Some reports say that the first cards were used as early as the ninth century, but many reports also suggest that the Chinese game of leaves that holds this title, didn't actually use cards, and therefore people debate if that should count as the start of playing cards.

It is believed that the Chinese were 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.

It is commonly believed that the four suits in a deck of modern English playing cards derive from French decks of cards that were developed from the Germanic suits around 1480. In turn, the Germans adapted their suits 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 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 play card suits to represent roses, bells, acorns, and shields. However, the Germans changed these to hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves. Despite the changes, however, the card suits looked similar to each other.

French Suits

The French suits that now typically appear in the United States a variation of the Germanic suits. They keep 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. Import of foreign playing cards was banned in 1628 in England, so 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.