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Lost Filipino Culture: Playing-cards II

Friday, 19th December 2014

Priced at ₱120.00 SRP,  the set of cards most familiar to Filipinos today is the Bicycle® «Standard Index Rider Back» line of the United States Playing Card Company. This card pattern is relatively «new» to the Philippine Islands, having only been introduced to the country a little over a century ago by the Americans.

Before this time, Filipinos were much more familiar with a very different set of playing cards, called the naipes españolas (trans. Spanish card Set; lit. Spanish set of playing-cards). This second article in the «Playing-cards» series is written to revive interest in a part of the Filipino cultural heritage that, through state intervention, has been driven to the fringes of society, if not outright extinction.

The development of Latin-suited playing-cards


The Spanish word for playing-cards, naipes, as well as the obsolete Italian word for the same, naibi, are both etymologically derived from the Arabic word nã’ib (Arabic: نائب), meaning viceroy. This is in reference to the Moro card game «Mulūk Wanuwwāb» (Arabic: ملوك و نوأب,), or «Kings and Viceroys». (N.B.: See «Lost Filipino Culture: Playing-cards I»)

gamblersAround the 14th century, playing-cards started to emerge from the Moro-occupied territories of Spain and Sicily and started to gain popularity among the neighboring countries and principalities of Europe. Over time, variations in the patterns used to produce playing-cards would emerge and later develop into the modern regional and national playing-card patterns that we see today.

The oldest of these patterns today are found in Spain, Italy, and to an extent, Portugal. Categorized by collectors as the Latin-suit pattern, they have their origins in Mamlūk playing-cards which in turn, descend from earlier Chinese ch’iénk’ǎ (Chinese: 錢卡, trans. money cards).

(N.B.: I will be focusing exclusively on Latin-suited playing-cards from Spain as this particular set is part of the Filipino cultural heritage.)

y Cristianos

In Spain and Italy, Latin-suited playing-cards only underwent slight modifications from their Moro predecessor. Much of these changes were aimed at simplifying the complicated geometric designs and Arabic inscriptions and remarketing them to local audiences. Without the constraints of Muḥammadan iconoclasm, artists began to visually illustrate the court cards with human figures. Like its Moro counterpart, Spanish playing-cards are unique in Europe in that the court cards do not feature a reina (Spanish: queen).

(N.B.: Some historical sets did feature the reina as a fourth court card, ranking between caballo and rey, but it never gained in popularity among Spanish card players.)

Compared to the 52-card Mamlūk set, Spanish playing-cards only have 48 cards, having dropped the 10-ranked card from each palo (Spanish: suit; pl. palos). The four suits from earlier Moro sets were more or less retained. These would be:

  1. Oros (Spanish: coins, trans. coins; lit. gold), the oldest direct continuation from the ancient Chinese ch’ién (Chinese: 錢, trans. cash) suit,
  2. Copas (Spanish: chalices), a direct adaptation of the Moro Tūmān (Arabic: طومان, trans. chalices) suit.
  3. Espadas (Spanish: swords), in Spain, the swords in the Moro Suyūf (Arabic: سيوف, trans. scimitars) suit were changed to more European straight broadsword model (N.B.: In Italy, Latin-suited playing-cards use curved sabers.),
  4. Bastos (Spanish: batons), as jawkān was an obscure sport for Europe, the Moro Jawkān (Arabic: جوّكان, trans. polo-sticks; lit. polo) suit was replaced by representations of wooden cudgels (N.B.: In Italy, Latin-suited playing-cards use ceremonial batons.).

«Cuatro elementos», photograph by Domingo Caceres, © 2012.

As (Spanish: Ace) cards showing the four palos of the Spanish set: oros, copas, espadas, and bastos. Taken from «Cuatro elementos», photograph by Domingo Caceres, © 2012.

The three court cards, which in previous Moro sets were identified only by their names, were transformed into the sota (Spanish: knave), the caballo (Spanish: cavalier; lit. horse), and the rey (Spanish: king).

Court cards on Spanish playing-cards are single headed, meaning the subject is not reversible.

[pic of cards]

To the delight of playing-card collectors, different regions in Spain have produced a number of variant patterns, which will be discussed later in this article. Regardless of the pattern used by the manufacturer, the subject of each card in a Spanish set is framed by a border, called pintas (Spanish: marking),which assist the player in identifying each suit by the number of interruptions along the upper and lower marginal lines. in the upper and lower marginal lines of every card,

Taken from

The 48-card variant of Spanish set is sometimes marketed as containing 50 cards since it sometimes includes two additional wildcards, the comodines (Spanish: jokers; sing. comodin). Another difference between French and Spanish sets and is that comodines have no fixed subject. Manufacturers have the discretion of placing anything they want on it.

During the 17th century, the 8s and 9s began to be purposely removed, prompting playing-card manufacturers to produce deliberate 40-card sets in response to market needs. Many traditional card games from Spain, Italy, and Latin America, (and to some extent, Portugal and France) only use 40 cards in play.

These 40-card sets are the most extensive variant of Spanish playing-cards found across the globe. They are in general manufacture in the former territories of the Spanish Empire and, unlike in the Philippine Islands, not viewed suspiciously by the authorities as a harbinger of organized crime.

A hybrid 54-card French/ Spanish set (N.B.: 52 cards plus 2 comodines) based on the French set, but using Latin suits also exists. Known as poker española (Spanish: Spanish poker), it was first produced by Barcelona card manufacturer Naipes Comas S.A. (1797-1992) early in the last century. The poker española set is designed to allow Spaniards to play non-Spanish games while still retaining a familiarity with the set being used. The design is currently produced by Naipes Heraclio Fournier S.A., borrowing imagery from its Castilian pattern.

[pic of cards]

Variants of Latin-suited playing-cards in Spain

The first Baraja Española

The common design for Latin-suited playing-cards in Spain took several centuries to stabilize into the first Baraja Española (trans. Spanish National Card Design; lit. Spanish set of playing-cards). Various manufacturers would add decorative features to their sets, much of their meanings now lost to time and myth.

Lost elements from c. 1500 A.D. sets include a child hosting the as de bastos, the Aragón coat of arms on the 2 de oros, a six-pointed star on the 4 de oros, and two heads, supposedly representing Ysabel I de Castilla and Ferrando II d’Aragón, on the central coin of the 5 de oros. Other elements retained their longevity and still remain in modern cards such are the pintas that appeared c. 1600 A.D. and the unusual inscription «Ahí va», found on some caballo de copas.

Baraja Española Gótica siglo XVII facsimile manufactured by Naipes Heráclio Fournier, S.A., 1983. 40 cards. Taken from World of playing-cards.

The Baraja Española was fairly stable for about three centuries until the Industrial Revolution when manufacturers and graphic artists experimented with new printing techniques to replace older traditional hand painted woodblock printing.

(N.B.: Another Catalonian playing-card manufacturer, Juan Roura S.A. (1872 – 1962) would hold the virtual monopoly on the sales of Spanish playing-cards to the Philippine Islands until its acquisition by Naipes Heraclio Fournier S.A. in 1962.)

The «Spanish Catalán» pattern

The «Spanish Catalán» pattern (N.B.: As opposed to the «French Catalán» pattern.) has become well-established in Latin America these days, more so than in Spain where the design originated in the nineteenth century. Barcelona card manufacturer and exporter Naipes Comas S.A. was primarily responsible for the widespread popularity of this pattern outside Spain. The main features of this pattern are:

  1. The oros suit shows rounds with geometric patterns instead of stylized coins;
  2. The as de oros shows a central female bust in profile, within a wreathed and crowned circular frame. This is mounted on a low platform carrying symbols of commerce and prosperity – barrels, cornucopias, anchors, etc., with flags draped at the sides.
  3. The chalices of the copas suit are open;
  4. Apart from the as de espadas, all the swords in the espadas suit are of one design;
  5. The cudgels of the bastos suit are knobbier and have more prominent branches, particularly on the as de bastos;
  6. The as de bastos doesn’t have a ribbon wrapped around the cudgel.
  7. The horses featured on the caballo cards are disproportionately small compared to the cavaliers riding them;
  8. The horses featured on the caballo cards are rampant (N.B.: rearing up on their hind legs.);
  9. The kings featured on the rey cards are clean-shaven, although some variants of the «Spanish Catalan» pattern portray the kings with moustaches.

«El Ciervo» Spanish Catalán pattern, c.1930, Sebastian Comas y Ricart - Hija de A. Comas.

«El Ciervo» Spanish Catalán pattern, c.1930, Sebastian Comas y Ricart – Hija de A. Comas.

The «Castillian» pattern

While the «Spanish Catalán» pattern gained ascendance in Spain, this did not mean that other patterns were abolished. It was, in fact, another distinctive style of Latin-suited playing-cards, referred to by collectors as the «Castillian» pattern which would become the new national design of Spanish playing-cards.

The modern «Castillian» pattern was designed (c. 1877-1887 A.D.) by graphic design artists working for the Spanish playing-card maker Naipes Heraclio Fournier S.A.; soon to become the largest playing-card manufacturer in Europe. Their design remains the standard of production even today.

(N.B.: However, Heraclio Fournier was acquired in 1986 by the United States Playing Card Company, and in 2004, both companies in turn becoming brand subsidiaries of Jarden Corporation.)

The «Castillian» pattern has several distinctive elements:

  1. The oros suit uses stylized coins featuring a head in profile;
  2. The chalices of the copas suit are usually topped by a lid;
  3. There are three sword designs in the espadas suit;
  4. The as de espadas features a sheathed saber with ribbon;
  5. The swords held by personages in the court cards plus the ones featured on cards 2 and 3 are long and straight while the remaining cards, 4-7 (or 9 in the 48-card variants) are short and triangular;
  6. The cudgels of the bastos suit are smooth, with a narrow handle and a broad rounded end;
  7. The as de bastos has some leafy twigs and is wrapped by a ribbon.
  8. The horses featured on the caballo cards are not rampant and are proportionate to the cavaliers riding them;
  9. The kings featured on the rey cards all have beards.

Above: First issue of the house pattern by Naipes Heraclio Fournier S.A., 1877. Below: 1887 revised design, which became the modern «Castilian» pattern used today around the world.

Above: First issue of the house pattern by Naipes Heraclio Fournier S.A., 1877.
Below: 1887 revised design, which became the modern «Castilian» pattern used today around the world.

Spanish state-monopolies

The State criminalizes the entrepreneurs «for the good of the people»

The emergence of nationalism and étatism as the dominant political philosophies of Europe began to infect Spanish state-policy around the 15th century. Among them, the championing of mercantilist economic practices which destroyed the budding entrepreneurial system that had been slowly and organically replacing the older failed system of guild protectionism.

Statue of Felipe II, Intramuros, Manila.

Statue of Felipe II de España, located in Intramuros, Manila.

In 1543, Felipe II «el Prudente» of Spain declared a state-monopoly on the manufacture and sale playing-cards (N.B.: A precedent which would include many other industries ranging from tobacco to platinum, etc.). This monopoly was to be divided into several regions including Aragón, Toledo, Castilla, and Sevilla as well as México and Nueva España (N.B.: including the Philippine Islands were included.) and leases for these respective monopolies were to be awarded on a competitive basis to the highest bidder and subject to onerous and often arbitrary state controls.

By royal fiat, the private manufacturing or importation of playing-cards were made criminal offences, if pursued without the royal patent.

For the next 260-odd years, production and sale of playing-cards were to be reserved solely to the state. Fortunes across the empire were ruined, as private manufacturers were forced to shut down in the face of state usurpation of private entrepreneurship.

While the favored lease-holders may have enjoyed laws protecting them from trade competition, they were also required to sell their playing-cards at fixed prices regardless of production costs. As a result, very little innovation occured, and the quality of playing-cards manufactured around this time was very poor.

Latin-suited playing-cards in the Philippines

Disruptions in the lives of our ancestors as a result of the Spanish state-monopoly

«Panguingue» by José Taviel de Andrade (1895). Oil on canvas. 61 cm. x 88 cm.

«Panguingue» by José Taviel de Andrade (1895). Oil on canvas. 61 cm. x 88 cm.

The earliest playing-cards in the Philippines were independently introduced to the country by Chinese settlers. Along with trade and commerce, the Chinese diaspora brought along with them a number of playing-cards, which outside of the Chinese expat community, and perhaps the older Lán-nâng (Hok-kiàn: 咱儂; trans. Fúchiènese-Filipinos), remain largely unknown today.

Chinese playing-cards introduced to the Philippine Islands included hsiàngch’í-p’ái (Chinese: 象棋牌, trans. chess cards), chǐh-kǔp’ái (Chinese: 紙骨牌, trans. domino cards), and máchiàng-chǐhp’ái (Chinese: 麻將紙牌, trans. mahjongg playing-cards). (N.B.: See «Lost Filipino Culture: Playing-cards I»)

When the Philippine state was established in 1571, the new Spanish colonial administration was obliged to enforce Spanish protectionism in the playing-card market, then it its 28th year. The imposition of the Spanish monopoly not only effectively halted the importation and sale of new Chinese playing-cards into the country, but it also produced a number of unintended consequences to Filipino gaming norms which still reverberate to this day, over four centuries later.

One unintended consequence of the Spanish state-monopoly laws is the way Filipinos view games like Chinese dominos and mahjongg. Even with the availability of cost-effective playing-card alternatives on the Internet, most domestic gamers don’t even realize that this option even exists and so, these games are always played exclusively using tiles.

This preference, (if you can call it that), for tiles over playing-cards is because our ancestors, having no recourse to the law in order to continue freely exercising their consumer preferences, took advantage of the fact that the Spanish playing-card monopoly law made no mention of duties to be imposed for playing-tiles and have ad the practice ingrained ever since. (N.B.: The earliest example of tax-avoidance in the Philippines.)

Another example would be that our ancestors, realizing that a permanent shortage of replacement playing-cards from China was inevitable (N.B.: and seeing that the risk-to-reward cost ratio of smuggling playing-cards was unprofitable to attempt such as venture), began to directly adapt Chinese card games in order function with Latin-suited playing-cards. (N.B.: More on these card game in a future article.)

The «Cádiz» pattern

The Spanish playing-card monopoly lasted almost three centuries before finally being abolished in 1811. With the deregulation in the industry, private playing-card manufacturers in Andalucía and elsewhere began producing playing-cards for both domestic consumption and export. Many new patterns emerged from this region, but only the «Cádiz» pattern, named after the province it originated in, survived to the present day.

The «Cádiz» pattern is very fascinating to playing-card collectors because, though produced in the modern era, its graphical elements retain the woodblock printing look of early Spanish sets. Because Cádiz hosted numerous port cities, these playing-cards easily found their way to to Spanish territories in Africa, South America, and Asia. When the modern «Castilian» pattern became the national design of Spanish playing cards (from the early 1900s onwards), popularity of the «Cádiz» pattern was on the wane. Today, the «Cádiz» pattern is no longer offered on the website of Heraclio Fournier. However, the pattern had managed to survive and is domestically reproduced in countries the set was originally exported to. Of interest is Catalonian manufacturer, Juan Roura S.A. which produced «Cádiz» pattern playing-cards under a number of brands including Dos Mundos, La Hispano-Americana, La Legítima Loba, El Toro, and Dos Toros. (N.B.: The «Dos Tigres» and «Dos Toros» brands are the ones most likely to be recognizable by older Filipinos.)  Elements of the «Cádiz» pattern are easily recognizable:

  1. «Cádiz» pattern sets usually have sharp square corners rather than rounded ones as found on other sets;
  2. The sota de oros features a hound tied to a pole;
  3. The chalices of the copas suit are open and feature a cylindrical bowl decorated with diagonal bands;
  4. The caballo de copas bears the inscription «Ahí va», an exclamation whose relation with the card remains obscure;
  5. The cudgels of the bastos suit are even knobbier than the ones featured in «Spanish Catalan» sets; and have more prominent branches, particularly on the as de bastos;
  6. Design of the personages on the court cards are reminiscent of medieval illustrations.

The politics of prohibition

Filipinos gambling during a wake.

Filipinos gambling during a wake.

The Philippine Islands are among the few Asian-Pacific countries of the former Spanish East Indies where the use of «Cádiz» pattern playing-cards is still reported to be in use, though sadly, rarely for the card games they were intended to be played with. Here, Latin-suited playing-cards are now popularly associated in the public mindset with carnival charlatans and gambling operators who run an illegal matching game called sakla (Tagálog: no trans.) during funeral wakes.

This current state-of-affairs is unnatural. Just like firearms and recreational pharmaceuticals, there is nothing inherently malum in se (Latin: inerently evil) in playing-cards, no matter what pattern is used in their design. So how did an ordinary leisure activity fall almost entirely out of public use and into the grip of criminal activity?

Cultural shifts in Filipino society and neglect over time may be in part to blame for this extinction. However, students of Prohibition-era America will recognize that the unwarranted felonious reputation that Latin-suited playing-cards have among Filipinos today is a result of over four centuries of deliberate political action by the Philippine State.

It is not disputed that playing-cards have had a rather tentative relationship with both religious and civil authorities ever since their creation. The earliest references (c. 1370-1380 A.D.) we have of playing-cards also include legislation banning their sale and use. Dice and board games were already well established in society so the addition of playing-cards to the available leisure activities was warmly received. However,  games of chance always do seem to attract the less savory elements of society.

The end-results of the Spanish trade-monopoly laws

Towards the waning years of the Spanish administration, idleness and gambling in Filipino society had reached almost epidemic levels, prompting the already overburdened and underequipped law authorities to crack down. Three centuries of Spanish restrictions on trade and entrepreneurship had produced an idle society which viewed entrepreneurship as an activity bereft of dignity.

In the popular perception of the time, the place of the Spanish and Filipino gentleman was in the law courts and the government offices. The only section of Philippine society wherein trade and commerce were pursued normally, were the Lán-nâng. (N.B.: There is a reason why 28(?) out of 50 people listed in Forbes business magazine’s article «Philippines’ 50 Richest» are Lán-nâng.) The rest of the economy was left to be managed almost entirely by the women of the Spanish and Filipino households, who by social norms did no manual labour, relying such tasks to be left to hired hands from the uneducated classes.

In such an environment, wherein legitimate enterprise is viewed with disdain, people begin to develop and attitude of fatalism; that personal and household improvement is impossible and relegated to the whims of suerte (Spanish: luck; lit. fate), gambling ceases to exist as a form of recreation and moves into the realm of vice.

The American administration


The cartoon depicts a Filipina, holding cards from a Spanish set, roots headfirst through into a rubbish bin labeled «Panguingue» which leaks all manner of vice: robo (Spanish: thievery), estafa (Spanish: fraud), and adulterio (Spanish: adultery) while she neglects the cries of her child conciencia publica (Spanish: public awareness).

Newspaper editorial railing against the evils of «Panguingue», a rummy card game, popular in the 19th- and early 20th-century.

Unfinished, but posted early. To be continued…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. robie tadios permalink
    Saturday, 13th May 2017 10.11 am PST

    hi hello i want to know where i can buy that card thank you

    • Saturday, 13th May 2017 01.04 pm PST

      Hello, Robie. Which particular kind of card set are you asking about?

      • ali permalink
        Saturday, 17th June 2017 02.41 pm PST

        spanish card

      • Tuesday, 20th June 2017 04.04 pm PST

        You can check the Quiapo public market. They sell Spanish cards. Not sure if they are authentic or local reproductions, though.


  1. Pusoy, Tong-Its, Pekwa, Lucky 9, etc., Filipino Card Games – FilipinosAround

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