Cards of Fortune
Years ago, I bought what I thought was an incomplete deck of very old playing cards. When I started researching the deck I discovered, to my delight, that they are actually a complete deck of fortune telling cards from the 1800s! What I thought were missing cards is actually a unique numbering system that I haven't seen anywhere else; each suit consists of an Ace and cards 7 through King. In addition, the Diamond suit has a 2, the Heart suit has a 3, the Club suit has a 4, and the Spade suit has a 5.
I was thrilled to have found this deck, the first fortune telling cards to be published on the American continent and a true one of a kind system. The deck was popular and continued to be published from around 1830 through at least 1890, but few copies have survived and it's not well known.
The cards were printed using woodblocks for the outlines and stencils for the colors. An instruction booklet came with the cards, giving advice on layouts and meanings for each card. An early version of our modern-day Little White Book.
History of the Turner & Fisher cards
There isn’t a lot of information available on the history of the deck, but we do have some reference material. Even though it's not much it's actually a lot more than is available for most decks - cards weren't considered 'serious' and almost nothing was written about them at the time, so it's all about piecing things together. The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards states: “This deck is believed to be the earliest fortune telling deck on the American scene, but the date cannot be determined accurately. Gene Hochman had a copy in black and white dated 1862 and a delicately colored version that appeared much older.” Two sets are listed in the catalogue of the Cary Collection of Playing Cards, one from Turner & Fisher dated c.1830 and one, from a different publisher, dated c.1899. These later 1899 cards aren’t in color, so I’m confident our full-color cards are from Turner & Fisher or their successor, Fisher Bros. These two related companies were in business from about 1830 to 1860.
Fortune telling cards in the 1830s
Fortune telling cards were well established when these cards were first created around 1830-1835. The great Jean-Baptiste Alliette had printed his 32 card Petit Etteilla nearly 50 years earlier, and the Game of Hope had been popular in France and Germany since the turn of the century. In Paris, Madame Lenormand was famous for card readings using a variety of decks. Tarot, originally a card game, was the subject of several books and had begun to be used for divination. In addition to the widespread practice of reading with regular playing cards, 32, 36, 42, 52, and 66 card fortune telling decks were being created in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. All of these decks used their own systems of meanings, numbers, and suit symbols. It was a creative time, and our Turner & Fisher Cards of Fortune reflect this. They don’t match any other deck. They are their own tradition.
Life in the 1830s
The 1830s were a vibrant time in the United States, full of changes. It was only 50 years since
the constitution was signed in 1787, and 60 years since the 1776 declaration of independence. Running a country by letting the citizens vote was still a new idea, and many of the people living here could remember the war of independence for themselves. There were 24 states, with a population of 12,866,020. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness did not yet apply to all the peoples of this new country; 2,009,043 of our people were enslaved, and only a fraction of citizens had the right to vote. Still, there were signs of change; the abolitionist movement had found its voice and began to organize in earnest, and women’s suffrage was stirring. Most people still lived and worked on farms, but cities were becoming more important – this is strongly reflected in our cards, where nearly all of the scenes are set in towns and cities. Life could be harsh and uncertain. The average life span was about 65 for those who survived to adulthood, but child mortality was heartbreakingly high – around 44% of children died before their 5th birthday.
Staying in touch could be difficult. The telegraph hadn’t yet been invented and telephones were generations away. While most adults could read, letters took a long time to arrive and were very expensive to send, as much as a full day’s wages for the working classes. Delivery could be unreliable. All in all, it’s easy to see why fortune telling cards were so popular.