Sunday, September 6, 2020

Folklore Mysteries from late 1800s on Joker Playing Cards

I'm looking for help shedding some light on some late1800s American folklore. 

I'm  trying to understand the mythology or folklore behind some jokers designed in the very late 1800s.
-     A "Put the Evil in the Box" type story - A TRUE MYSTERY
-    Some Easter symbolism  - this is mostly figured out
-    The Brooke Soap monkey - also mostly documented
-    The little imps - This turns out to be the Palmer Cox Brownies, a contemporary character from the late 1800s

Put The Evil Back in a Box.  My remaining mystery is the image where an apparently good little mythical creature is capturing an evil little creature in a box or trunk. It has a caption of “Iv'e got him” sic." 

On this card, an apparently good little mythical creature is capturing an evil little creature in a box or trunk. It has a caption of “Iv'e got him” sic. It's in the tradition of the “Diable en Boite” or “Devil in a Box" French stories. The story of Pandora also comes to mind.  Does this image reflect any story that might have been known and popular in the US in the late 1800s?

They might be imps or elves or spirits or leprechauns (weren’t the Irish immigrating in great numbers at that time?).   It was first published in 1895 by the Standard Playing Card Company based in St Louis and Chicago. Hochman. SU11 JAP #20 P140 is the first reference.

Here are my three jokers with the same image, the other two were published by the same company after it was bought by the US Playing Card Co but while it was run as an independent company.

Easter Egg Hare and Little Folk. 

This next joker card was first published in 1885 by National Card Company of Indianapolis and NY and it shows a bunny rabbit being hatched from an egg. Behind him, there are two small mystical creatures with a tool for hitting, sort of like a pick axe. It has an acorn on it. It is either to help the bunny break the egg or to bonk the bunny on his head. 

While it's clear that the little folk are surprised, it's not clear to me whether they are scared by the bunny or just surprised.  It appears, using current thinking, to be Easter-related. Anyone know anything about them?

 This joker started at the National Card Co, Aladdin deck but became a USPCC brand through acquisition. Hochman. NU6 Aladdin #1001 c1885 P110.
This imagery seems to have been picked up in a number of more recent jokers. Below on a set of 9 notice the middle row middle jokers and the lower row, middle jokers. In the middle one, the witch emerging from the egg is clearly a bad witch.

Note there were initially four mysteries about imagery but two of them have been illuminated to my satisfaction. You can read about them below the two live mysteries.

The Brooke's Soap Monkey with His Human-Headed Jester Wand.

This monkey joker is among my favorites. It has a monkey holding a jester's wand which, unlike almost all jester wands which feature the head of the person holding it, it has a person on the end. It’s the head of Punch from Punch and Judy, descended from the Italian tradition (thanks Dan!). BTW: This idea that the jester's wand, or baubble, might have a head different than that of the holder is explored in this article about designing my own jokers.

The monkey in this picture interestingly enough had a previous role as the character for advertising for Monkey Brand Soap.  No, you could not make this stuff up.  Check out this advertisement from the 1880s including the clever poem:

The Palmer Cox Brownies.

This fourth set of images on jokers with the little mystical Brownie creatures is no longer a mystery to me. They are the Brownies as depicted by Palmer Cox in the late 1800s. They were widely known back then as the Palmer Brownies. They were popular in cartoon strips, books, and video games. OK, I'm kidding about the video games but they were so popular that the name was used for a Kodak Brownie Camera, the youngest girl scout levels, and a brand of mixes for chocolate Brownies. 

I wonder sometimes how much the National Playing Card Company (Indianapolis and NY)   paid for the right to put these brownies on their jokers.

The story in teh card below turns out to be a commentary on the playing card industry. Here's the key:
Uncle Sam - The American Playing Card Company. This joker was published by them
NCC - The National Card Company
SPC - Standard Playing Card Company
CC - Consolidated Card Company (NYCC)
Overall, the American Card company seems to be under attack by a deluge of snow and snowballs. 

 Here are some  articles about my older American jokers:

NYCC jokers
USPC Jokers including Bicycle, Congress  
National Card Company and Perfection too 
Kalamazoo and Russell  - this article
 Midland, Arrco and Arrow Playing Cards

And here are some happy mostly contemporary dog jokers!


  1. The monkey is holding a Commedia del Arts character called ( in England and America anyway ) "Punch" or "Mr. Punch". He is known as "Poliichinelle" and "Punchinello" etc. in other countries, or even Kaspar / Kasperl etc. Another Commedia Del Arts character is "Harlequin", who is also often on Joker cards. We talked a bit about this during your visit. CDA goes back hundreds of years to Italy.

  2. Dan. Thanks. The monkey's wand is pretty clearly a Punch character. I do remember you explaining that to me and pointing out how often these old themes reappear. My curiosity about the monkey remains. Who was he?

  3. I noticed that a google search of: "monkey picture advertising 1900" was very productive! Monkey Brand Soap was apparently huge. There was also Monkey Brand Safety Matches. by sandshoevintage |



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