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14. The Ace of Spades

By Evelyn Strope (@emstrope)

Early-nineteenth-century playing cards can tell us much about politics, society, and culture in the early American republic. These woodcut cards, engraved on paper and then water-coloured, served several functions. They represented a continued interest in ‘diversions’ like gambling in post-colonial society, where dice and card games of various fashions formed a key part of social interactions at home and in taverns alike.[1]

The Ace of Spades also served as a trade card for the deck’s maker: Nathaniel Ford & Co., Milton, Massachusetts. Admiring his handiwork at the card table in the local inn, players might inquire at his shop to examine his other prints and engravings, or even purchase a deck of cards. Perhaps buyers were drawn in by the geometric designs of the Jack, Queen, and King, or by the Great Seal of the United States emblazoned on the Ace. This is perhaps the most interesting possibility for the historian of early American politics and material culture. The belt that encircles the spade reads ‘American Manufacture’. A twenty-first century consumer used to labels like ‘Made in China’ may have missed this phrase, an early-nineteenth-century American would not have.


After the Revolution, the United States attempted to forge a distinct national culture from a British material past. After years of struggle for commercial and national sovereignty with European powers – which, in retrospect, would only end with the War of 1812 – President Thomas Jefferson instigated an embargo on all British and French goods in 1807. Americans were faced with the political power of the purse: Buy American, and support the burgeoning nation; buy British or French, and render the Revolution and the commercial independence it had guaranteed pointless. By playing cards with this deck, especially when they may have traditionally imported one from abroad, Americans took their stance on the importation issue. Even the Ace of Spades could be political in the early republic.


[1] See Vaughn Scribner, Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society (NYU Press: 2019).

Featured image: Ace of Spades. Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library,

Image in text: Faces of playing cards, including the Ace of Spades. Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library,

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