Playing cards for fortune telling and games of chance originated with the ancient Egyptians. Priestly astronomers cut their celestial charts into pieces so their secrets could not be discerned by commoners.
Rearranging cards for winning combinations has been a popular pastime ever since.
However, the Ace of Spades was not singled out for special notice until American colonists in 1765 objected to “taxation without representation. "
Britain and its American colonies were victorious in the French and Indian War - but heavily in debt. Prime Minister George Greenville persuaded Parliament to impose new taxes on colonists to help defray expenses of defending them.
A tax on sugar impacted the rum distilling industry that was important to the economy of American colonies. It also raised the price of rum everywhere else in the empire. The resulting outcry - at home and abroad - prompted a sugar tax cut.
To compensate for smaller sugar taxes, Parliament adopted a tax on paper. In those days, paper was expensive and in short supply because it was tediously hand made.
All sheets of paper were taxed according to size.
Most galling to Americans, the tax had to be paid in sterling silver “coin of the realm. " Printed money from colonial banks, the common currency, was not acceptable.
An embossed, official design on the upper-left corner of each sheet was “stamped" there by a notary seal. This affected 49 varieties of paper.
These included stationery, newspaper, deeds, contracts, bills of sale, court records, depositions, wills, marriage licenses - and the wrappers on decks of playing cards.
As proof that the stamp tax had been paid for cards within the wrapper, the ace of spades (highest value) included a printed version of the stamped seal.
Disgruntled card players avoided suspicious tax collectors by forging the seal on the ace of spades of black-market decks.
Americans contended a local tax imposed by parliament - without an American delegate - was “taxation without representation. "
A Stamp Act Congress was convened Oct. 1765 at New York to denounce the stamp tax. Most colonies agreed not to import any British goods until the tax was repealed.
The Sugar Act had been an indirect tax on trade between British and American businesses. The Stamp Tax, however, was a direct levy on Americans only.
Protest demonstrations defied authorities. Pamphleteers whipped out scathing denunciations of Parliament.
Militant “Sons of Liberty" gangs harassed tax collectors. All tax commissioners - under threat of public hanging - resigned on the day the tax was to begin.
Merchants in England experienced sales losses under the American's embargo and also petitioned for repeal.
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766. To save face, the British peers approved a Declaratory Act. It stated:
“Parliament had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America - subjects of the Crown of Great Britain - in all cases whatsoever. "This statement of Parliamentary supremacy was ignored at the moment by Americans.
Nonetheless, opposition to taxation without representation continued as replacement taxes were imposed on tea and other necessities (another story).
A tacit reminder of those momentous events - resulting in our great nation - are decorations on the ace of spades.
Manufacturer of playing cards now adorn the ace of spades with their trademarks.
The most famous ace “stamp" is that of the United States Playing Card Company. Its Bicycle brand of 1867 is still a favorite with poker players.
The ace of spades for this early design features a representation of Thomas Crawford's statue of Freedom which had been placed atop the U. S. Capitol in 1865.
During World War II, the company secretly worked with the U. S. government in fabricating special decks to send as gifts for American prisoners of war in German prison camps.
When these cards were moistened, they peeled apart to reveal sections of a map showing escape routes.
During the Vietnam War, two lieutenants of Company “C, " Second Battalion, 35th Regiment, 25th Infantry, wrote U. S. Playing Card Co. They requested decks containing nothing but the “Bicycle ace of spades. "
Viet Cong were very superstitious and frightened by the ace of spades. It foretold death in fortune telling. They regarded Lady Liberty on the Bicycle ace as the goddess of death.
U. S. Card sent thousands of requested decks, gratis, to the troops. The plain, white tuck cases were inscribed “Bicycle Secret Weapon. "
According to the company, these cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids.
American soldiers pasted the ace on their helmets to provide a psychological advantage in hand-to-hand combat with Cong.
A famous legend involving the ace of spades as a symbol of God is said to have originated in every war since the early 1800s.
Randy Campbell, a collector of oddities, furnishes a copy of the “Soldier's Almanack, Bible and Prayer Book" that dates to the reign of George the Fourth mentioned in the text.
* * *
Richard Middleton, a soldier, attending divine service, with the rest of the regiment at a church, instead of pulling out a Bible to find the parson's text, spread a pack of cards.
This singular behavior did not long pass unnoticed, both by the clergyman and the serjeant of the company.
The latter in particular requested Middleton to put up the cards. Upon his refusal, he was conducted after church before the Mayor - to whom the serjeant preferred a formal complaint of Richard's indecent behavior during divine service.
"Well, soldier!" said the mayor, “what excuse have you for this scandalous behavior? If you can make any apology, it's well. If you cannot, I will cause you to be severely punished. "
"Since your honor is so good, " replied Richard, “I will inform you. "
On saying this, Richard drew out his pack of cards. Presenting one of the aces to the mayor, he continued his address to the magistrate.
"When I seen an Ace, it reminds me that there is only one God; and when I look upon a two or a three, the former puts me in mind of the Father and Son, and the latter of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
"A four calls for remembrance of the Four Evangelists -Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
"A five, the five wise Virgins who were ordered to trim their lamps.
"A six, that in six days God created heaven and earth.
"A seven, that on the seventh day He rested.
"An eight, of the eight righteous persons of Noah preserved from the deluge.
"A nine, of the nine lepers cleansed by our Savior.
"And a ten, of the Ten Commandments God gave Moses on Mount Sinai. "
Middleton took the Knave and put it aside, then continued.
"When I see the queen, it puts me in mind of the Queen of Sheba.
"And when I see the king, it puts me in mind of the Great King of Heaven and Earth, which is God Almighty - and likewise his Majesty King George the Fourth (reigned 1820-30).
"When I count the number of spots on a deck of cards, I find 365 - the number of days in a year.
"There are four suits - the number of seasons.
"When I count how many cards are in a pack, I find there are 52 - so many weeks are there in a year.
"When I reckon how many tricks are won by a pack, I find there are 13 - so many (Biblical) months are there in a year.
"This pack of cards is both Bible, Almanack and Prayer Book to me. "
"Well, ’ said the Mayor, “you have given a good description of all the cards except the knave, which is lacking. "
"If your honor will not be angry, " returned Middleton, “I can give you the same satisfaction on that as any in the pack. The greatest Knave that I know is the serjeant who brought me before you!"
"The Mayor replied, “I don't know whether he be the greatest knave or not, but I am sure he is the greatest fool. "
The Mayor called his servants, ordered them to entertain the soldier well, gave his a piece of money and said he was the cleverest fellow he had ever heard in his life. "
(Note: Middleton likened the number of cards in a suit to the ancient Jewish calendar of 13 moon months - still used to compute Easter. He could have designated a 12-month Julian calendar as the number of picture cards in a deck. )
June 6, 2004
Lindsey Williams is a Sun columnist who can be contacted at:
Website: http://www.lindseywilliams.org with several hundred of Lin's Editorial & At Large articles written over 40 years.
Also featured in its entirety is Lin's groundbreaking book “Boldly Onward, " that critically analyzes and develops theories about the original Spanish explorers of America. (fully indexed/searchable)