Monday, November 20, 2023

The Earliest Jokers and My Questions about them

Investigating One of the Great Inventions of the 1800s: The Joker 

I often wonder about the creation of the playing card joker.   I haven't yet seen an article that fully satisfies my curiosity about this great invention.  

The joker is - IMHO - one of the great inventions of the late 1800s. So I thought I'd try to see what I could learn from studying Hochman to figure out how the joker began. I imagine that there are some people who understand this is much greater detail than I and I'm hoping that you will hop in either here in comments or on the Joker Collectors Group on Facebook and help me understand it.

UPDATE - I got some useful feedback on this and am trying to write an updated corrected article with more accurate information. If you have some information to contribute, I can be reached as john at  Also, you can email me if you'd like me to tell you when I have an updated version of this. thanks. Several people pointed me towards a fantastic article on this topic which answers many of my questions but also raises some new ones and doesn't address others:
The History of the Joker Card
by Phil R Neill. Updated version of July 28th, 2022.  BTW, anyone know how to contact him?

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Here's what we know and we mostly agree on:

1.    The joker emerged in the United States in the 1860s.
2.    The joker was initially a Best Bower card for the game of Euchre.
3.    The joker card is unique in that it lacks an industry-wide standard appearance. While many images and characters appear on the joker card, the joker card concept quickly merged with the idea of a court fool or harlequin character.  Then, it became a palette for branding and creativity for card designers.

Here's some questions that I'm asking.  
1.    What was the first deck with a joker?
2.    Can we see an evolution from Best Bower to Jester and to other early graphical themes? What were the other early themes?  By looking at the earliest jokers, I see four broad graphical themes:
        -    Chinese themed
        -    Court jester or harlequin themed
        -    "Other" which includes animals and geometric designs. 
        -    Best Bower themed
3.    Why did the early jokers so often start with Chinese imagery? It is contrary to the European design of the face cards and the back imagery which was very rarely Chinese themed.   

What was the first deck with a joker? (This is based 100% on info from the printed Hochman)

The first joker is copyright 1860 by the New York Consolidated Card Company per Hochman . NY16 JNO J Levy.  I'm a little troubled by this  since I imagined the first joker would be more of a Best Bower style.  I also thought the word Joker and the putting of different images on jokers would emerge later.  But this is what I see in Hochman: The first joker appeared with the words The Joker and with three Chinese men playing cards.   

Although this joker has the earliest copyright date by several years, I'm going to take the approach that there is room for doubt since the historical records are poor and we continue to learn more. So I'll review the other candidates for the earliest joker.  

 I consider any deck published in the 1860s with a joker to be a candidate for being the first and I review all the jokers published up to and including 1875.  This article is based on information (and graphics) from the Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards by Tom and Judy Dawson. It is meant to start a discussion and I'm hoping that people with more detailed and recent research will be able to update this article. 

 There are four publishers with decks that are candidates (ie 1875 or earlier) for the earliest jokers. I review them in the order that they appear in Hochman.   
  • Mauger, 
  • Langely / American Card Company, 
  • New York Consolidated Cards,
  • Andrew Dougherty.

Victor E. Mauger (from Hochman Chapter 3. The Early Makers)

Victor E. Mauger ordered customized cards from Goodall for the US market starting as early as 1867.  The earliest joker shown is U19c Columbias. It is another very early card with the word joker: It has a geometric design rather than a person. It's wild that this early joker appears to be manufactured in London by Goodall. I wonder when the first joker was published in London and whether it was through Goodall who learned about it through manufacturing for Mauger. 

 Hochman also says: "In the early 1870s, he <Mauger> ordered a deck from Goodall that included a multicolor seated joker with the Goodall inscription on it" U19 c1873 P17. It was issued for the Centennial with the Heathen. The word joker appears on the card he is holding. I'm having trouble considering the character as either a jester or one of the heathen Chinese. His chest plate (is that armour?) features a wolf's head. He is wearing a mask.  Could this be a harlequin or jester figure?

Also of note, there's U18c Continental Card Co P17 c1875. This card says: "Highest Trump, Takes Either Bower."  Notice it uses neither the term Best Bower or Joker.

Langley / The American Playing Card Company (and its acquisitions)

The L5 Eagle Card Co shows an 1867 jester character,  P24. This deck appears to be the second card named joker.  The card uses the word joker, the character is more a European court jester than anything else, and the card has a card-centric design with pips decorating each corner and the jester's clothing.  So I'm considering him in the jester / harlequin theme, not Chinese. Of course, I could be wrong on this and lots of other points.

There are also the Heathen Chinese jokers, L4 Steamboats c1870 (and the more famous L7 but it's c1877). While they are seated much like the L5 jester joker, they are clearly Chinese themed both because of the graphics and the label: "Heathen Chinese".

There is L9 c1875 which has a joker design largely featuring the word joker. Is this the second joker without a character on it?

Here's a bizarre design swerve at the very beginning of jokers, there is L12 c1875 featuring what looks to me like a dog's head staring back at me from the mirror. This is the second use of an animal on a joker? Woof woof!

There's also L16 Royal Flush c1875 P27 which features a tiger (lion?) on a joker. This is also an early use of an animal on a joker.  Great cats are today not an endangered species as far as card jokers are concerned, check it out. 

The L41 Union Playing Card Company also has a c1875 joker card which uses the word joker and features a court jester figure. 

The New York Consolidated Card Company

NY16 JNO J Levy  has a Joker card c1860. This looks like the winner for the first documented joker. It uses the word joker and features three "Heathen Chinee" sic playing cards.

The very first animal to appear on a joker or Best Bower is NY16b American Manufacture P50 c1868. It's a Best Bower joker featuring a dragon.  I think it's curious that the first animal is a dragon which could be associated with China. By the way, I have recently been interested in the early stylized dragon jokers, the earliest of which appears in 1876 as NY47a.  

In 1863, which makes it the second oldest joker shown in Hochman,  there is a Best Bower card, NY36, Hochman P54, Samuel Hart & Co. This card lends credence to the theory that jokers evolved from the best bower concept except that it is predated by the 1860 Joker card!

Note also the 1870 Samuel Hart NY39 Best Bower.

Here is the same best bower card a year later from Lawrence Cohen, NY13  P490 c1871.  
Andrew Dougherty

AD7 c1872 p70 might be the first introduction of the term: The Jolly Joker. In this case, it's a girl as a jack-in-the-box holding a jester. This is, btw, the only joker shown in this article which I currently hold in my collection.

In the same year, Andrew Dougherty published AD8 c1872, a best bower. Geometric design, no character.

  • It is very hard to see that the joker started with best bower and then moved onto other designs.  
  • The word The Joker was used from the very start.  Why?
  • The Chinese focus for jokers is mysterious to me. Were playing cards generally associated at that time with the Chinese?  If so, why don't the backs and other card design elements reflect this?  With the exception of the Congress 606 Chink and Cheefu decks, there doesn't seem to be a Chinese association on the backs of cards.  But both the joker characters and maybe the dragons have a Chinese connection. Why?
  • There are three animals amongst the first dozen jokers.  
This article is based on research limited to a close reading of the Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards by Tom and Judy Dawson. It is meant to start a discussion and I'm hoping that people with far more detailed and recent research will be able to update this article.

Areas for discussion and further study

Most people agree (although not all) that the word euchre and juker influenced the naming of the card the joker. Is there any evidence to support this?  Are there any other theories? 

Were there any patents, registered trademarks, or registered copyrights from the 1860s or early 1870s related to the joker?  Given the fierce competition among the card publishers and their patenting indices and designs, it seems odd that there are no efforts to protect these innovations related to jokers with patents or other intellectual property filings.

Does the Carey collection have any information about the early jokers? ANSWER: I looked it up. Nothing in the published catalog.

Can higher resolution copies of these pictures be collected? What would it show us? In my collection, at this time, I have only two jokers that are described above:


1 comment:

  1. The "Heathen Chinee" joker is not the first joker as it is based upon the poem by Bret Harte which was originally published in September, 1870. Due to it's popularity, images pertaining to the central character Ah Sin appeared in a variety of interpretations in both playing cards and advertising shortly thereafter. There are 2 slightly different variations of the card-playing scene joker pictured with the Hochman NY16 listing, one of which has a line reading "Ent'd. According to act of Congress in the year 1871 by Jno. J. Levy & Co. in the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington." The other variation does not have this line and has different shading on the floor. I believe the Imperial Bower or Highest Trump Card issued by Samuel Hart & Co. showing the dog in his doghouse to be a better candidate for the first joker but I do not know the exact date. Perhaps, someone with greater skills than I possess when it comes to online research can determine the date pertaining to the phrase "Copyright Secured." which appears at the base of that card.


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