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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Deck the Halls » » Pictorial Review: Transformation Decks (Part 1) - 19th Century (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

EndersGame
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*** TRANSFORMATION DECKS ***

Description

A transformation deck is a unique deck of playing cards where the pips have been incorporated into a larger artistic image. As an example, the five pips on a Five of Hearts might be transformed into five faces that are part of a larger image picturing five people. Typically these pips use their traditional location on the card and their traditional red/black colours. Decks where the pips aren't in the expected position/colours are sometimes referred to as semi-transformation decks.

In this article I'd like to feature some of the beautiful transformation decks of playing cards that have been created over the years. Many collectors love these decks, and I count myself among them; they are easily among my favourites, due to the incredible creativity and ingenuity that is required.

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Origin

The practice may well have originated from a parlour game or social pastime, in which cards containing the pips were embellished using pen and ink to create miniature scenes. Playing cards typically didn't have indices on the corners at the time, so the entire card could be used as a canvas.

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For example, the pictures shown here are cards that were drawn by hand with pencil by Thomas Walters, on a standard pack of Hunt's Playing Cards in 1874.

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Similarly the art below has been hand painted onto a De la Rue pack of playing cards from around 1890.

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History

Transformation decks have a long history, and it seems to me that this history can be divided into three main phases.

1. 19th century: The first examples of transformation playing cards seem to have appeared in the early 1800s. A beautiful example of a 19th century transformation deck is the famous deck created in 1883 by Andrew Dougherty as a marketing tool for the Murphy Varnish Company, and I'll be showing you images of some cards from this attractive deck below.

2. Late 20th century: Having enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 19th century, by the 1900s the trend in transformation cards largely vanished. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, transformation decks saw a brief resurgence with some notable examples including the Key to the Kingdom deck, the Art for the Earth deck, and the Under the Sea deck - all of which you'll see in this article as well.

3. Crowdfunding era: Then we fast forward to the modern era of the 21st century, and particularly the time when the custom playing card industry exploded in 2012 with the advent of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. This has made it easier for graphic designers to bring their creations to the marketplace, and as a result over the last five years a number of beautiful transformation decks have appeared. As contemporary examples, I'll be featuring decks by Emmanuel Jose, Ben Jones, and more.

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This article is by no means an exhaustive or complete list of all transformation decks that have appeared. But it is intended to be a brief introduction to the genre, and to showcase some of the lovely playing cards of this type that have been created over the years.


*** 19TH CENTURY ***

The very first complete transformation deck of playing cards was created by J.C. Cotta in 1804. Some have estimated that around 70 different transformation decks were subsequently created throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, which by modern standards is a relatively small number. By the late 19th century colourful and creative transformation decks by Vanity Fair and Harlequin showed pips incorporated into artwork of people dining, skating, playing tennis and riding bicycles.

But in addition to transformation decks, several beautiful smaller sets of transformation cards exist, and the concept already came to life in the form of artwork that predates the very first complete deck.

Early Cards (1801-2)

According to some sources, the first transformation cards were created in 1801 by D.W. Soltan and D. Berger. They consisted of a set of eight copper engraved cards, and pictured scenes from the book "Hudibras" by Samuel Butler. Two examples are shown below:

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A set of twelve engraved transformation cards were produced in 1802 by Christoph Haller von Hallerstein. But these were not intended to be a functioning deck of playing cards, but an experimentation with a new form of art.

The same can be said of the sketches and drawings created by Jan Rustem in 1802, which also took artistic liberties with the playing card concept, but which don't appear to be created as a complete deck of playing cards.

John Nixon (1803)

Caricaturist John Nixon published illustrations for the first complete set of transformation cards in 1803 under the title "Metastasis".

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This was effectively a published scrapbook, which had concept drawings and coloured images.

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Even though this collection wasn't an actual deck of playing cards, it certainly is another step closer in that direction.

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As is evident from all these images, it was a good example of the creativity and ingenuity that was already at work in this time.

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J.G. Cotta (1804)

The first transformation deck that was published as an actual and complete deck of playing cards was produced by J.G. Cotta in Tubingen, Germany.

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The deck was called The Playing Card Almanac (Die Spielkarten Almanach), because each card represented one week of a calendar year, and was published in 1804.

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Almanacs were popular at the time, and combining this with playing cards was an obvious move.

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This particular deck was designed by Charlotte von Jennison-Walworth.

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While the court cards pictured characters from a play by van Schiller, the transformations of the number cards weren't related to this play, but were independent drawings.

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H.F. Muller (1809)

Another of the earliest transformation decks is by H.F. Muller of Vienna.

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The number cards from this deck have been well described as "delightful period scenes of everyday folks in imaginary stage sets depicted with a subtle sense of humour and excellent characterisation of figures and faces."

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Here the pips represent all kinds of things including hats, collars, and bows.

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Rudolph Ackerman (1818-19)

In his periodical `Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashion etc', Rudolph Ackerman included plates of original transformation playing cards, like the ones shown here.

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Like many European transformation decks of the time, these typically told the story of "Beatrice of the Fracas".

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Caleb Bartlett (1833)

The first transformation deck known to be published in the USA is Caleb Bartlett's creation of 1833.

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Bartlett's American produced deck basically borrowed Rudolph Ackerman's designs above, but with brighter and heavier colours.

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A. Crowquill (1850)

Under the influence of London's A. Crowquill (a pseudonym for Alfred Henry Forrester), the 1860s saw a brief change in the style of transformation decks, as the pips themselves contained illustrations and intricate designs.

The cards pictured here are from a Crowquill deck printed around 1850.

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A deck like this was even designed for the royal wedding of Edward VII by Liverpool's C.B. Reynolds in 1863.

Adolfo Matarelli (1860)

The charming examples shown below are from a colourful transformation deck by Italian Adolfo Matarelli.

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This deck was first published in Florence.

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Matarelli is a well-known caricaturist who also has the distinction of being the first illustrator for Carlo Collodi's story Pinocchio.

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His intriguing transformation deck features colourful street scenes.

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George Gordon McCrae (1875)

In a Christmas Annual entitled "On the Cards" or "A Motley Pack" published in 1975, Scottish born poet George Gordon McCrae contributed illustrations for 40 transformed playing cards.

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Unlike some transformation playing cards, McCrae has resisted the temptation to turn most of the pips into people, resulting in some very clever and humorous designs.

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The pictures were related to the book's story, which was written by the Australian writer Garnet Walch, and undoubtedly accounts for the presence of some Australian animals and characters.

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While not a published or complete transformation deck, McCrae's Motley Pack deserves a place in the history of transformation cards due to his creativity.

C.E. Carryl (1879)

By the end of the 19th century, transformations were becoming more colourful and attractive, like the Harlequin Transformation Deck shown here.

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This deck was designed in 1879 by C.E. Carryl.

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Today it is widely considered to be one of the most skillful and artistic of the American transformation decks.

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Murphy Varnish (1883)

This beautiful and iconic deck was originally printed in 1883 by Andrew Dougherty.

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It was created as an advertising deck for the Murphy Varnish company from Newark, New Jersey, and is famous for its humour and clever artwork.

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The pips have been cleverly incorporated as part of larger images that depict scenes filled with warm humour.

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As an advertising deck it also depicts comical pictures of varnish salesmen, people worshiping cans of varnish and all of the good uses for the Murphy Varnish.

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Even though it was a promotional product, it remains a stunning example of a beautiful and creative transformation deck from the time.

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The good news is that Home Run Games has lovingly restored it in the beautiful new edition pictured above, making this classic deck readily available for collectors today. You can obtain it directly from the publisher, Home Run Games, here.

Joseph Clayton (1887)

Freelance artist Joseph Clayton was very fond of author Charles Dickens. Under the pseudonym "Kyd", in 1887 he published in Fleet Street Magazine illustrations featuring characters from the Dickens' classic "Pickwick".

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Evident in the Pickwick deck is the Crowquill style of incorporating images within the pips themselves.

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Clayton's illustrations were later published as a deck of playing cards by the Navarre Society in 1982.

Vanity Fair (1895)

The Vanity Fair Transformation deck was published in 1895 by the United States Playing Card Company.

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While the two-way court cards were also turned into comic figures (e.g. one is smoking a pipe, another holding a spoon), the real attraction of this deck lies in the number cards with transformation art, like the ones shown here.

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The star of transformation decks was beginning to fade somewhat at this time, but this deck remains a great example of what the genre could produce.

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*** CONCLUSIONS ***

What do I think?

Creative: The beauty of transformation decks lies in the creativity and ingenuity required to make them. The requirement to incorporate pips into a larger design is a huge restraint that artists have to work with. Being able to do this in a way that is imaginative and original is a real challenge. As is evident from the many examples, there are some wonderful works of art that have emerged as a result.

Collectable: Obviously many of the older transformation decks are not readily available. Many of these are collector's items, and fetch high prices. Even the beautiful decks from the late 20th century are not readily available anymore, and many of these are also prized items for those fortunate enough to own them.

Playable: While the prime appeal of these decks lies in their artistic merit, there are also some that have been produced, particularly in the modern era, that are just as functional as they are beautiful. This is particularly true of the decks created by Emmanuel Jose and Ben Jones. These designers have very deliberately tried to create decks that can still be played at the card table, and even though their decks show great creativity and imagination, they are very readily usable for playing a traditional card game.

Creatable: Are you an artist or designer that has some good ideas for transformation playing cards? As the last five years have made clear, the custom playing card market is alive and well. In the modern era of crowdfunding, anyone with a truly good idea and talent has the potential to be successful, if they're willing to put in the work to do the design, marketing, and fulfilment, or to partner with an existing publisher that can help with this. While competition in this marketplace remains tight, successes like the transformation decks created by Emmanuel Jose and Ben Jones show that creative and beautiful transformation decks will almost certainly find buyers and the support needed to make them become a reality.

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Where do you get them?

While the vast majority of these decks are not readily available, the good news is that if you would like to add some transformation decks to your collection, there are certainly some places where you can get some of these, although your choices are mostly limited to those of the modern era, with the Murphy Varnish deck being one notable (and beautiful) exception. Some crowdfunded decks were only available via the Kickstarters that produced them, but fortunately there are some that have made it to retailers or can be purchased directly from the publishers, and can also be found on sites like Amazon and eBay.
- Murphy Varnish deck (1883): available from Home Run Games in beautifully restored edition(link). Cost: $13-$21
- Ultimate deck (2012): available from publisher Art of Play (link). Cost: $25
- Odd Bods deck (2012): available from Art of Play (link) and Rare Playing Cards (link). Cost: $15
- Pipmen deck (2016): available from publisher Elephant Cards (link). Cost: $12
- Pipmen World deck (2017): available from publisher Elephant Cards (link). Cost: $14

Recommendation: While I enjoy all kinds of custom playing cards, I especially have a soft spot for transformation cards. The examples above show something of the creativity and ingenuity this genre requires. With the new possibilities for publishing playing cards that crowdfunding has opened up in the last half a dozen years, here's hoping that we'll see many more beautiful designs emerge in years to come.

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Credits: I have benefited from many sources in the making of this article, but I'd particularly like to acknowledge the following:
World of Playing Cards: www.wopc.co.uk/transformation
BGG user Geni Palladin: www.boardgamegeek.com/user/moxtaveto
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BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
Rik Gazelle
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Fascinating post. I've not seen many of those types of cards before.
EndersGame
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If these interest you, I can definitely recommend the Murphy Varnish deck (1883) featured above in its restored edition from Home Run Games. I own a copy of it myself, and every card is lovely.

It was printed by United States Playing Card Company with their usual air cushion finish, so the cards are quality cards that handle well and should prove durable.

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I'll also be following up this article with two more, covering the 20th century and the modern era respectively.
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BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
Rik Gazelle
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If I bought one deck like that I would feel compelled to start collecting a lot more.

The World of Playing Cards website http://www.wopc.co.uk/ is a fascinating read, thanks for the pointer. I look forward to your follow-up articles.
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What a fantastic post! I love transformation decks too, and hadn't seen all the images you posted, it was a real treat! I own a reprint of the almanac deck, which is beautiful (it's still available and not too hard to find on the net). But man I wish more of these would be reprinted; I also have some of the more modern ones, but I really have a soft spot for that 19th century artwork. Thanks!
EndersGame
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Thanks for the feedback! Where did you get the reprint of the Almanac deck - are they still available?

For reference, here are all three articles in this series:

Transformation Decks (Part 1) - 19th Century
http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewt......c=650986

Transformation Decks (Part 2) - Late 20th Century
http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewt......c=651034

Transformation Decks (Part 3) - Modern Era
http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewt......c=651137
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BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
Caveman
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I found them from a seller on Ebay. I'll try to find a link to their store, as I recall, they have a lot of interesting decks.
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Http://tarotbg.eu/en/playing-cards-repro......any.html

The site has many wonderful decks, enjoy!
Rik Gazelle
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So many wonderful decks. I'm getting tempted Smile
EndersGame
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Just to supplement this article, I recently became aware that Sunish Chabba from Guru Playing Cards is turning George Gordon McCrae's beautiful and creative "Motley Pack" from 1875 into an an actual and complete deck of playing cards.

This project is entitled A Motley Pack: Transformation Playing Cards & Book, and is currently being funded via Kickstarter:
- Cost: ~US$15 per deck (includes free US shipping)
- Current funding level: over 100% (fully funded)
- Kickstarter ends: Wed, February 20, 2019

Two different versions of the deck are being produced: a Royal edition, and a Heritage Gilded Edition.

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Here's a sample of the more colourful artwork from the Royal Edition:

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The Heritage Edition features a more austere colour scheme true to the original:

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As a special bonus, Guru Playing Cards is also publishing a limited edition 120-130 page art book, which reproduces the original On The Cards book from 1875, which is where the artwork from McCrae's cards first appeared.

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I'm thrilled that this fantastic transformation deck is being made available to modern collectors in a wonderful new edition that does justice to its historical importance and artistic beauty.
It's also worth mentioning that Sunish Chabba is very experienced at crowd-funding and at creating custom playing cards, and he has a proven track record for fulfilling his Kickstarter projects speedily and on time. So it's fantastic that the Motley Pack is being produced by Guru Playing Cards, because it guarantees a quick turn-around and good quality.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sun......ng-cards

Note: The images in my original post here in the forum are no longer showing up due to a change in the image hosting system. However the original article about transformation decks can be seen off-site with all the pictures at this link.
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BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
todsky
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Wow, what beautiful works of art! I was never aware of such decks before. Thanks for sharing that.

Todd
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Todsky's Magic Shop: over 15,000 tricks, books, DVD s and Card decks. www.magicstore.ca
EndersGame
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Quote:
On Mar 27, 2019, todsky wrote:
Wow, what beautiful works of art! I was never aware of such decks before. Thanks for sharing that.

Yes, transformation decks are quite stunning!

Note that the pictures in my original post above are no longer showing up due to a change in the image hosting system. Fortunately you can view the entire article off-site (with all the images) at this link:

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/1857655
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EndersGame
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Once again, an update to this article. I recently learned the good news that Will Roya from Playing Card Decks is currently in the process of creating a reproduction of the famous Vanity deck from 1895!

Vanity Deck (1895)

This project is entitled Late 19th Century Playing Card Reproductions - Vanity & Faro, and is currently being funded via Kickstarter:

Cost: ~US$10 per deck
Current funding level: over 150% (fully funded)
Kickstarter ends: Mon, April 29, 2019

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Here's a sample of the colourful and creative artwork from this deck:

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Here's a picture showing some actual cards from an original deck.

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Besides the Vanity deck, the project also is producing a reproduction of the Faro deck (1887).

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Will Roya from PlayingCardDecks.com is spearheading the project, having successfully produced many playing cards in recent years via crowdfunding, and with extensive experience in the industry.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/pla......ns-vanit
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BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
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