Thursday, January 18, 2018

Congress Jokers

Congress Jokers are a historic and popular brand of the US Playing Card Company (Article updated July 2023). Congress Jokers are also a strong point of my collection especially since my great buy of Congress decks in the Spring 2023 from the Potter & Potter auction (described in my article about buying antique Congress decks.)

Early History of Congress Jokers. Congress Playing Cards were first produced by the Russell & Morgan Company in 1881. They were one of the four original brands produced by Russell & Morgan. The four brands were Tiger (101), Sportsman (202), Army and Navy (303 and 505),  and Congress (404 and 606).  In 1891, the company changed its name to the US Playing Card Company. (Source: Wikipedia Article on USPCC  Jan 18, 2018). 

 And in case you haven't figured it  out (it took me years), the corner indices in the card above are the US Playing Card symbol, an intertwined U and S.

 The original Congress brand joker from 1881 to the late 1890s was the Dundreary joker.  Dundreary was a character in a popular Broadway play called (to do, describe the character, the play, and show how the Guilded Age included literature trying to capture the evolving intriguing new American identity)my American Cousin. This was an era when the American cultural identity was emerging with Mark Twain writing a Yankee in .... .  Here is my Dundreary with its back. BTW: I'm not the one who drew on it with pencil. I'm also not going to be the one to try and erase it. It is what it is.

Dundreary Joker
This back is a "lacquer back", usually two colors one of which  is gold. There is no border and the edges are gilded.  Very elegant.  This was replaced a few years later with backs with a white border. 
Dundreary Lacquer back, no border
Per the Congress Guy's effing Amazing website, this back is a Storm (Dark Blue/Gold) lacquer back dating from the 1880s to the 1890s. 

In the 1890s, Congress switched to the Matching Era where the joker was a black and white version of  the card back image. The Matching Era is exemplified by the Moon Fairy below.  (I've heard there was a matching Dundreary joker but I've never seen it and don't have it. I would LOVE to have it)

The Moon Fairy joker (below) is a Matching Joker, it dates from 1899-1901, it's described on the WOPC Congress article (source an article by Simon Wintle from June 2010 on The World of Playing Cards).  This Moon Fairy joker was part of the Congress brand.

But I don't keep the Moon Fairy with my Congress Jokers, it is grouped with the other characters sitting on crescent moons.   This is an important principle that distinguishes  the organization of my collection from most others. I organize primarily by visual themes: others mostly organize by brand, publisher, country, and/or era.  If I was more educated and had a better memory, I might do it the other way. But I'm not. I just organize by the pictures.

Original Congress Brand Jokers

Here's a few more examples of Congress Matching Jokers from my collection. And here's a listing of all of my Matching Congress Jokers

 Around 1900, Congress switched to putting a picture of the US Capitol on their jokers.  The World of Playing Cards website has some historical info on these decks. But the best information on the joker sequence is from the Congress Guy's website. He says that this joker below was in use from 1904-1910. Notice the roads in front of the Capitol and how wide the joker is.

See the writing by her feet? I couldn't make it out so I took it to the High Counsel (Djos Dury, Matt Schacht) on the Joker Collectors Club. On the right it says: Copyright 1904 by the USA card co.” The card deck is called Spanish.
The painting turns out to be signed on the left by F. Luis Mora (1874 –1940)  a Uruguayan-born American figural painter who painted some spectacular portraits of women. Step aside Toulouse Lautrec, I think Luis is the bomb!

This is next joker to be used. It's also a wide joker, notice that the roads to the capitol are now shown  in the picture. On the back, there's a lady named  Berenise, more about her later. She was used from mid 1901s to the 1920s.

Looking at the back of the card below.  Am I the only one surprised by the display of a bare breast complete with a distinct  nipple on a product that was mainstream and sold only in the finest stores at the start of the 1900s? Notice that she is cupping one of her breasts, a gesture that appears unambiguously sexual to me. 

Remember these are Congress 606 gold gilded decks sold to high society types at very high prices. This is far from a racy illicit deck sold through some alternative not-so-reputable channels. 

The answer, explained to be on a Facebook group, is that is based on a classical-style painting by Luis Ricardo Falero in 1886. Many Congress decks used the painting in its original format. My version from maybe 1890 is the more modest one where she is draped covering her lower regions.

 The next two are from the 1920s. Notice that Congress has gone to narrow cards like most everyone else based on card games that meant players had to hold more cards in their hands at once. 


First, a mystery. Is this "Congress Joker" part of the  Congress brand and if so, why is he not mentioned in Hochman?

Mystery solved: Thanks to Tom VB. “It's a Canadian version  of Congress deck #606 printed by The U.S. Playing Card Co., Windsor, Ontario, ca. 1930. Hochman CDN25, Congress #606, page 174.”


Here's the ensemble shorts of the  different Congress Jokers in my collection (as of 6--23-2023). Due to popular request, I'm showing the backs too. 

A quick note on matching the jokers with their backs. They are in see through plastic pockets. The front of the page is the jokers.  The back is the backs. This means that the joker from the top left above is shown below on the top right. 

 Does anyone know any about the Congress jokers here with the coat of arms with the medieval helmet at the top, the pair of fleur-de-lys designs, and the lion? My guess would be they come from Montreal, St Louis, or New Orleans based on the French connection. Anyone?

Notice in the bottom row left of the backs below, there is a more ornate medieval coat of arms. It's even more French with the "Dieu est mon droit" inscription (God is my right) and some other words that I should take a closer look at. Frankly, I've never really understood what Dieu est mon droit is suppose to signify. Is it a claim to religious freedom that each of us has the right to our own religion and god?  This seems unlikely since the French are not so much on board historically with freedom of religion. Maybe it's a claim that God is our side? 
These Capitol jokers vary in terms of the he view and details on the building and the text on the word "Congress", the design around it, and the corner indices.

Here's the last three of my Congress Jokers and their backs.

A few last things. One, another call out to the Congress Guy's website. The article on the history of the joker is fantastic as is the one where he identifies the rarest ten Congress decks. The Congress Guy  is Kevan Seaney  (I'm John in case anyone was wondering).
Secondly, inspired by Congress Guy, I've started scrounging around in my extras, looking at the backs of duplicate Congress jokers. No sooner did I start looking at them,  I totally fell in love with the queen and king below.

Want an idea of what jokers to look at next?  You could look at my article on my Congress 606 Antique Decks of Cards.  Here's a summary of the travel subsections of the joker collection: now all online and counted!
The total is 354 travel jokers (June 2020).
  1. Vehicles 87
  2. American places and Americana (different than American people) 82
    1. Congress Joker section   (this page!)
  3. Non US Places 81
  4. Maps 32
  5. International people types 72
Here's a link back to the  overall joker organization. Or you can visit a page about the history of the USPCC or an article about the Bicycle Jokers.


  1. Kevin, the Congress Guy, explains all about the Congress cards in an interview:

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Thanks for your input and for reading and thinking about jokers.