Transformation Decks

Some history behind these quirky cards.

Transformation decks: Collectors crave them. Card fans are curious about them. A few people even own a few cards or a complete deck. What about these delightful cards are so magnetizing?

We’ll start with a definition: Transformation cards are cards on which the pips are incorporated into an artful scene. They don’t stand alone on a white background; they’re woven into an illustrated image. For example, a transformation three of hearts card might turn the heart pips into faces of three riders on horseback. They retain their shape and color, but are part of a scene, transforming the nature of the card.

Part of the mystery and appeal may come from the fact that Transformation decks enjoyed a relatively brief heyday; the first cards appeared in 1801, the first deck in 1804, and then merely 70 different decks (a rough estimation) were developed after that. That is, there were 70 different styles of Transformation decks, not 70 decks printed in total. By the early 1900s, the trend was dead, although it’s recently experienced a revival.

While a few printers experimented with individual transformation cards, the first full transformation deck was printed in Tübingen, Germany. J. G. Cotta was the artist behind the illustrations, which were meant to commemorate the life of Joan of Arc. Since there were 52 cards in the deck, Cotta meant for each one to symbolize a week in the calendar year. The deck was called Die Spielkarten Almanach—the Playing Card Almanac.

It took until 1833 for the first transformation deck to get printed in the United States. Charles Bartlett was the designer, though he had help; his design borrowed heavily from the European transformation decks of the time. And by “of the time,” we mean that the primary story told on European transformation decks was the story of “Beatrice, or The Fracas.” The original design was by Rudolph Ackermann, and could be found printed in an English magazine in 1818-1819.

In 1883, Andrew Dougherty printed a transformation deck in his New York factory. But rather than tell a story, this deck was an advertising tool for the Murphy Varnish Company. Thanks to the clever use of the pips, along with comical phrases and characters, the Varnish transformation deck is one of the most highly coveted among collectors.

A new kind of transformation style appeared in the 1860s. Instead of the cards setting a scene, only the pips themselves contained the scenes. Faces, intricate designs, and other illustrations were only visible within the confines of the diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs, and the backgrounds left clear. A. Crowquill in London was the first to design this kind of deck. In 1863, C.B. Reynolds of Liverpool designed a similar kind in honor of the wedding of Edward VII.

Recently, transformation decks have come back into vogue. In the last twenty years, some notable ones have been produced, including one called Key to the KingdomArt for the Earth, and Under the Sea.

Do you have any transformation cards in your collection? Tell us your story in the Comments section!

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