Friday, June 23, 2023

Congress Antique Decks of Cards

Jackpot!  In May 2023, I bid $225 for "a set of old Congress decks, some with jokers". I won and wow, what a win! 

Let's take it from the top. What are Congress cards? Congress was a playing card brand started in 1881 by Russell and Morgan (which became the USPCC). Of their initial four brands, Congress was the tippy tippy top of the line. In the late 1800s, if you were a Rockfeller, Carnegie, Mellon, Astor, or you were playing with them, you played with decks of cards with gold edges which came in leather cases and had beautiful artwork on the back.

Congress cards were expensive and priced out of reach of most Americans. The cards' edges were gilded with gold. The packaging was elaborate with an inner leather box slipping neatly inside an outer leather box. The art work on the backs and on the aces of spades were of the highest quality. Think of the rich society types buying cards for card playing evenings at their mansions or clubs. Remember that in the late 1800s, the industry of home entertainment consisted of buying sheet music to play on the piano, books to read, or playing cards or other games to play (no phonographs, radios or other electronic entertainment yet).

Fancy Packaging, Gold Edges, Nice Artwork

I suddenly have a collection of 19 antique Congress decks of cards. Amazing! I was initially only interested in the jokers but since it feels wrong to break up antique decks, I'm moving into some specialized card deck collecting. The 19 decks are all from around 1900 and, to optimize the jokers, I've even done some trading already,  more on that below.  

I started by looking at two of the Congress decks that I acquired: Anticipation and Diana. Both are Congress 606 Gold Edge decks (pictured below).  

In terms of jokers, both of these decks are considered matching jokers. This means the joker image is a black and white version of the cards' back. It matches! The deck is named for the image on its back.  The top one below is Anticipation:  the box cites a 1902 copyright date.  The bottom box is Diana and an 1899 date is listed. Both Aces of Spades list the US Playing Card Company. The bottom ace also lists the Russell & Morgan factories.

Congress Decks from 1899 & 1902

In terms of dating Congress cards, the Congress Guy (Kevin Seaney) provides a handy table which maps the tiny code on the ace of spades to the date. Kevin's Congress Guy's new website also includes a list of Congress decks and other fantastic information and resources. I also learned from Kevin's website that there are two generations of the matching jokers. The Early Matching period jokers have the word Joker on them.

Here's four of my jokers  from the Early Matching Period. This period was defined by the word joker being included on the joker.

Here's two from the Later Matching Period. Note that  the word "joker" is omitted and that the Ace of Spades has changed. The ace no longer has the lacy design around the ace of spades and they have enlarged the word Congress and the spade with the Goddess of Liberty in the middle.

Congress Cards' Approach to Jokers 

Lord Dundreary. At the introduction of the Congress brand in 1881, the Congress joker was Lord Dundreary, a character from “Our American Cousin”.  (I have one of these. I've wondered if he was paid royalties for the use of his image...)

In 1899 Congress cards switched to matching jokers. Initially, it included the word "joker" but the word was omitted starting in 1902.  Congress would sometimes frame the picture in an oval like the Toboggon card below (second row, third column).

Here's the six Congress 606 gold edged decks that I have that have matching jokers.

Here's the flip side of those boxes.

Matching Joker Decks
Diana - 1899
Yacht - 1900
Rube 2 - 1900
George Washington 3 - 1901 
Anticipation - 1902 - The word Joker is missing.
Toboggan - 1905 -  The word Joker is missing. Image framed in an oval

I have a few other Congress matching jokers in the collection. For instance, the Moon Fairy who is kept in the crescent moon  subsection (of sitting jokers) is a matched joker from the early matching period:

Around 1904, Congress switched to putting the Capitol on the jokers.  A little bit later, they switched to narrow bridge deck. Because of this sequence, I think all of the Matching Jokers are wide and they predate the switch to narrow bridge decks.

Here's the thirteen antique Congress 606 decks that I bought that have Capitol jokers.
The last deck in that page, called Good Night, I think should have a matching joker but my deck came without any joker. So I don't really know.

Here's what some of the early Capitol jokers looked like. For a complete view of antique through modern Capitol jokers that I have, look at the Congress Jokers article.  I'm  going to try to get clear the sequence of the different looks of the Capitol jokers (all a work in progress and some is tbd).

Confusing. Decks have many lives!  A deck might be initially published in one era, like the Matching era, but then published again when Congress has switched to Capitol jokers.  For instance, I also have a Diana deck from both the matching era and the Capitol era...

This next picture shows that I have two pairs of decks in which I have two versions: one with matching jokers and one with Capitol jokers.

Here's the two Anticipation decks, one from each joker era.

Here's the Congress decks that I purchased with Capitol Jokers   (this area is a work in progress).
Anticipation 1902 - R3, C3 - has roads
Berenice (where is this one?)
(NO Chums - 1909) 
Cheefoo-1906 - has roads - R2, C2
Diana - 1899 - R1, C1
Good night - 1900 - R3, C4 - No Joker (could be matching?)
Knuckle Down - 1906 - R2, C1 - has roads
La France - 1908
George Washington  - 1922 - R1, C5
Martha Washington - 1902 -R1, C4
Martha Washington - 1902 -  R2, C4
Mariano - narrow
Melissa -  narrow
November 1918 - narrow
Spanish 1904 - R1, C3
Spinning Wheel,  Priscilla, The Old Old Story - By 1903  - R3, C3  - has roads
Wilma - narrow
The Congress Decks with Capitol Jokers again

I'm both looking at the names and info on the decks and trying to cross reference them against other sources and particularly Kevan's lists. Some are confusing.  For instance, this one (below) seems to be named The Old Old Story on the card, with the artwork copyrighted 1906. But in looking at Kevan's site, I see on the names page a Priscilla aka Spinning Wheel dated 1903 and another Spinning Wheel "Bef 1901".  Kevan's card backs page has this card under The Old Old Story which makes sene since it says that on the back and it's pretty different looking that the Spinning Wheel ones. 

Congress decks are published and sold to this day making it the longest existing continually published card product line (besting the Bicycle brand by four years, per the Congress Guy).

Here for instance is a pair of Congress decks that I have from maybe the 1950s or 60s.  Notice that the packaging continues to be upscale and elaborate.  Oddly, some of the more modern Congress decks do NOT have Capital jokers. Weird!

I bought these decks from a Potter and Potter auction (I've bought from them several times, what a great institution. Let's keep supporting them). The lot of Congress decks included a framed set of eighteen Congress cards. Just what my wife doesn't want, another framed set of cards.  I'm also lukewarm about it since while interesting, it doesn't feature my beloved jokers. 

And for a special treat, I thought I'd make a quick video touring around these card backs. You get to hear my voice!!!

Trading!  Shortly after first posting this article, I was approached for a trade.  I traded away four Congress decks, apparently greatly sought after, which either had no joker or a Capital joker that I already had. I received four decks which have matching jokers. If I was a deck collector, maybe not a great trade. As a joker collector, I'm thrilled. Here is what I got:

Good Night. The box and ace says 1899. The joker is the early matching period (ie the word Joker is included) and the Ace of Spades is the more elaborate version. The joker image is in an oval frame.  She is the Americana album, American people subsection. This section will soon be split up and she'll go with a few pages of old images of American children.
Diana. This is my third Diana deck but it's my first with the Matching Late Period joker (ie the word Joker is omitted and it's not the Capitol). The box  and ace are dated 1899. The joker image is in an oval frame. This means that I have a Diana deck with an oval Diana with the word joker, one with an oval without the work joker, and one with the Capital joker. None of these Dianas are wearing a shirt. Or a bra. Just saying... Diani is the fighters section of the joker collection (which will soon be brokeninto subsections based on weaponry)
Moon Fairy. This is my first complete Moon Fairy deck and unlike my other matching Moon Fairy joker (which was Matching Early Period with the word Joker), this is Late Period Matching. Both the box and ace are dated 1899. The joker image is in an oval frame.  The two moon fairy jokers are in the collection in the sitting section, crescent moon subsection.
Music Hath Charms. The box is undated but the ace cites 1902. The image is not in an oval frame. The word joker does not appear.  Since he is playing a wind instrument, he is in the collection in the music section, wind subsection. 
Congress Playing Cards circa 1900
Here's some close-ups.

Diana Deck of Cards

Good Night Congress Playing Cards

Moon Fairy Congress Cards

Music Hath Charms Cards

As usual, this article is a work in progress. Please help me with factual errors, unclear writing, additional info, or lapses in interpretation. I also appreciate hearing about my typos.  

Related articles:
The Congress Guy's website is comprehensive on this topic.
The WOPC article on Congress No. 606 by Simon Wintle 
Enders Game interview with Kevan Seaney on
There's Hoffman of course.  

To keep reading, I'd suggest looking at my:
Congress Jokers article (recently updated!)

Antique decks - including Congress that I’d trade away

Confusion about one deck: two jokers?

This next deck creates some confusion. It's a Diana deck but this one is from the era when Congress used a picture of the Capitol on the jokers. One thing that I find bizarre about this deck is they there are two jokers and they use different images of the Capitol. One image is head on, the other is from an angle. One foreground  shows roads approaching the capitol. The other thing that I find surprising is the nearly nude female figure in an era that I would have thought had Victorian sensibilities.

However, while I received the deck with two jokers, it's possible that one was added to the deck later on by someone who saw a loose joker and so stuck it with that deck.  I have a tiny bit of evidence that suggests this since if you look closely at the backs of four cards from that deck, one has the word Diana much more clearly printed than the others. Yes, it's one of the jokers suggesting that it was from a different deck to begin with. Thoughts?

A note on terminology. I use the word "antiques" since they are over a century old. I think vintage is the term for cards between ~25 and ~90 years old. 

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