The Odd and Rather Interesting Story

         of the United States Playing Card Company

 

 

The United States Playing Card company (USPC) is the oldest and largest manufacturer of playing cards in the United States.  

 

USPC evolved from a printing press purchased from the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper at the end of the Civil War.  The owners of the press were looking for new products to manufacture and they decided on playing cards in 1881.  USPC still manufactures one of their first designs today -- the “Congress” playing cards.

 

Bicycles were the big fad of the late 19th century.  Races were popular and their winners were nationally-known.  Everyone was learning to ride (or pretending to!).   So it was natural that USPC produced their “Bicycle” design cards starting in 1885.  Like the “Congress” design, “Bicycle” cards are still a best-selling playing card today.

 

By the early 20th century, the public’s attention had shifted to the new excitement of flight.   This prompted USPC to introduce their “Aviator” cards.  “Aviators” initially had biplanes on their backs.  Over the years USPC upgraded the airplane design to single-winged propeller planes, and later to a commercial passenger jet.   USPC ultimately gave up changing the design to suit new airplane technologies – today “Aviators” have a traditional “pattern back” rather than an airplane on them.

 

USPC also makes “Bee,” “Maverick,” and “Hoyle” design playing cards.

 

The USPC contributed to several American wars.  In World War II, the company produced special cards that could be peeled apart to reveal maps and escape routes.  These were sent to US troops in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps. 

 

During the Vietnam War, USPC produced special decks consisting solely of Aces of Spades.   The Viet Cong had been influenced by fortune-tellers who saw the Aces of Spades as predicting death and sorrow.  Troops used these special cards as a form of psychological warfare, making sure the Viet Cong would find them at appropriate times.

 

The USPC resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Their building features a bell tower built back in the 1920s.  The USPC broadcast radio programs from this tower during the early days of radio.  The company promoted Bridge and other card games through these broadcasts, which were part of the “radio boom” of the 1920s.   Eventually radio settled into its modern form of “broadcast networks,” and USPC sold their radio station to Crosley Radio Corporation (Crosley went on to become a famous Cincinnati-based manufacturer of radios in the ‘20s and ‘30s).   Back when the USPC broadcast as station WSAI on the AM band, federal regulators had not yet caught up with radio, and the station was so powerful it could be heard as far away as New Zealand!

 

The USPC site and landmark radio tower…

          (photo courtesy of USPC)

 

 

USPC employees have invented many card games.  For some reason now lost to history, back around 1900, the company wanted to stem the growing popularity of Bridge.  (Who knows why they cared, since whether people play Bridge or any alternative game, they still need to buy playing cards!).   In any case, USPC invented the game “500” as an alternative to Bridge.  500 was probably the most popular game in the United States between about 1900 and World War I.   It remains the most popular game today in Australia, where it is often called their “national card game.”  USPC prints special Australian 500 decks, which contain 63 cards (extended from the standard 52-card deck by the addition of Jokers,  Elevens, Twelves, and two red-suited Thirteens).   These special 500 decks enable up to six players to play the game in one group.

 

Once I visited the USPC and thought it might be fun to pick up an Australian 500 deck at the company store.  I looked around and saw a dozen or so decks on the shelf.  Just as I spotted the decks, I saw a gentleman with an Australian accent happily picking up every available pack.  Oh well!

 

USPC employees appear to have developed several other games including various forms of Poker (Cincinnati and Cincinnati Liz) and Euchre (Cincinnati Euchre).  And while the company once tried to kill of Bridge, one of their experts ultimately invented what is -- by far -- the best two-handed version of the game, Bridgette.  

 

You can find the rules to all these games in the USPC’s inexpensive card game compendium called the Bicycle Official Rules of Card Games.   The book has been in print continuously since the 1890s and costs only $8.  I recommend it as the authoritative rulebook for American card games.  Almost any used book store has old copies of this book.  It’s fun to see how games like poker and rummy have evolved over the years.

 

Or you can visit the USPC web site.  They’ve posted the rules to all the games from the book at their web site, where you can peruse or download them for free.  

 

The USPC houses a famous “card museum” with historic playing cards and related materials.  The collection includes the oldest playing cards found in America, and rare cards dating back to the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.  It’s a fascinating place to visit if you’re ever in Cincinnati.   Stop by on your way to Graeter’s or while eating some of the famous Cincinnati chile!

 

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