Friday, September 4, 2020

Kalamazoo and Russell Playing Cards

 Let me show you my jokers from the Kalamazoo and Russell Card Manufacturing companies. As background, this is one of a series of articles looking at my older American jokers:

- Dougherty jokers
NYCC jokers

USPC Jokers including Bicycle, Congress  
National Card Company and Perfection too 
- Kalamazoo and Russell  - this article
- Standard 

Let's start with some romance! Some Kalamazoo jokers. Hochman says these started production on 1910. They're RU13 from Hochman P129.

The “Smart Set 400” brand with named backs was introduced in c.1906 by the Kalamazoo Playing Card Co. in Michigan. Kalamazoo subsequently merged with the Russell Playing Card Co. in around 1913 or 1914. Thereafter the “Smart Set 400” series continued to be published by the Russell Playing Card Co. under its own name (quoted from World of Playing Cards). Here's my four

The four decks were named for the girls on their backs: Flying Girl, Dreaming (copyright 1909 RHILL), The Fortune Teller  (copyright 1909 by RHILL), and Day Dreams (F.A.&S Co.). Day Dreams is the narrower joker with the tear in the middle.

Kalamazoo Steamboat 7-11 Cards.  c1910. This deck is closely related to the Smart Set Jokers pictured above.  Both decks were published just at the time when the Russell and Kalamazoo merged. The deck is RU13 Kalamazoo, Hochman P129. Way back when, the Steamboat brand with the low-end of the Russell (and others) card product lines.   

The deck has definitely been used. Been used a lot. I sure wish the deck could tell me who bought it new, who played it with it, and who stored it but of course, walls and decks of cards cannot talk.  I can try to imagine but it's just my imagination.


Hochman has a particularly interesting chapter on the story of Russell and Kalamazoo in the first decade of the 1900s. There was a hot salesman working named Benjamin Rosenthal who started at American Playing Card Co of Kalamazoo. He left when the president took his territory away to give to his son. So Benjamin became a sales agent for Kalamazoo Paper Company which was struggling and quickly got them back on track, focused on cards, and in doing so, became an executive. They bought Russell Card Co of Milltown NJ and merged them.

Rustler was first introduced by Russell in 1906. The original design called Russell's Regulars had stars in the corner, It's RU5. Mine has a geometric back. 

My second Rustler is likely RU 17 published in 1912, Hochman P130. It's in the American people section of the collection, cowboy subsection.

Russell apparently won a Blue Ribbon and put it on a joker that he started publishing in 1930, RU8a  P127 Hochman. 

Dandy Dapper  RU18 P131

1912 Statue of Liberty RU18 P131

 This Whig King joker first appears on P133 & 135 in 1904 and 1905 as either Ru24 or  RU37b. Its associated both with Ruseel and the Universal Playing Card Company. There's some mystery about Universal and it's acquisition or relationship to Russell.  

Russell Tourist Deck. I bought this one for $430 from Jason, Dec 2022I have the entire deck including one joker and the original box. It is copyright 1886: Russell & Morgan Pt'g Co (sic). How's this for a charming joker, what do you make of that facial hair? He is in the animal / horse subsection.

 The Tourists deck is on P91 of Hoffman, US9 Tourists #155.  "`Tourists were graded between Tigers and Sportsmans. Quoting from an 1887 advertisement, "They are a happy medium between unenameled cards (Tigers and Steamboats) and enameled cards (from Bicycles upward), having the finish of the former and the same style back as the latter. Each pack is in a neat truck box.'" Here's the ace of spaces.

Here's the picture on the box

The back of the cards

The Wild Frontier by Russell. I like this Frontier joker and Picket deck by USPC despite how worn and ratty it is. He's 1914 US30a Picket #515 on page 101 of Hochman. 

Kalamazoo & Russell: What's the story? Willis Russell started Russell Playing Cards in Milltown NJ around 1905  and made lovely cards but the company declared bankruptcy in 1911. It continued to operate and was put up for auction in 1913.  It was bought by Benjamin Rosenthal of the Kalamazoo Paper Box and Card Company the two entities were combined. He also bought the American Bank Note Companies playing card line a year later.  

Let's summarize the Kalamazoo / Russell jokers in the collection (with the page from Hochman):

- Rustler P126 & 130
- Blue Ribbon P127  
- Smart Set P129  
- Baggie clown 130  NEED TO FIND
- Dapper 131
- Aristocrat 131  NEED TO FIND
- Statue of Liberty 131  
- Whig King P133

Articles coming soon on:

Midland. P149. 150 Topsy Clowns
Arrco - Geometric Man. 1935 P151
Arrow - Dancer. 1925. P151

Here are the other articles about my older American jokers:

PLUS, there's the article on the mysteries of the mythologies of the images on some old jokers.


  1. I have a boxed set of, "400X Smart Cards" listed on Ebay.It has 2 of the Aristocrat Jokers in it.
    Best Wishes,

  2. Hi. I'm looking for any ads, etc for the original w w. Russell cards from Milltown,NJ. Besides the usual suspects, eBay, etc, know where I can find something?


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