Anyone who is vaguely familiar with British social history will be aware that they have had some “different” (by that, yes I mean rather odd) taxes over the years.
Take for instance the Hearth Tax in which you paid based on the number of fireplaces in your house, the Window Tax was the same but was based on the number of windows you had. The Clock Tax, the Candle Tax, the Soap Tax, even a Beard Tax are others just to mention a few – and all were used as a means to raise funds for the government of the day.
But here we’re talking about a tax on Playing Cards. Yes, truly. The humble deck of cards was taxed (not forgetting dice as well).
In reality they had been taxed since the late 1500s, but in 1710 the English Government dramatically raised the taxes on them, which the manufacturer was then liable for. As the rate of tax was equivalent to 12 times the price of a cheap pack of cards, you can imagine that there were forgeries.
But in a bid to prevent this, each manufacturer had their own ‘mark’, and would hand stamp their mark on the Ace of Spades to show that it was a legit version.
Still, as the taxes were excessive, forgeries happened. And while creating forgeries of playing cards doesn’t sound too drastic, if you were caught making them the result was hanging.
Until 1828, in order to show that the tax for a specific deck of cards has been paid, a hand stamp was used on one card after the wrapper had been removed. Because the Ace of Spades was the first playing card you see when you open the deck (it’s always the card on the top), officials used to mark the Ace of Spades with their stamps.
In 1828, the stamp practice was replaced with officially printed Aces of Spades. These cards were printed on behalf of the Commissioners of Stamps by the Perkins Bacon company. When this card was placed inside the deck, it meant that the manufacturing company had paid the reduced shillings (from 30 pence it was reduced to 12 pence). Those Aces were known as the ‘Old Frizzle’ and actually looked pretty similar to a bank note.
This practice was used all the way up to 1862, when Duty Ace was abolished and playing card manufacturers were free to add their own designs on the ace of spades. Because it was already a tradition to have decorated Ace of Spades, the manufacturers produced their own designs for branding purposes.
In the 1960, the tax was formally put to an end but the custom of decorating the Aces of Spades remained and this is why, even today, the Ace of Spades is the prettiest card in the deck.