The history of playing card companies in America is largely a tale of consolidation, a long string of mergers and acquisitions. Over the course of the 20th century, while we were occupied playing trumps and drawing straights, most of the major brands have been subsumed under a single company – the United States Playing Card Company (USPC), founded in Cincinnati in 1867 and still based in that area today. They’ve taken the pot. We’ll get back to them in a minute.
First, take a moment to pull out your house deck. If you are one of the many bitten by the Texas Hold ‘Em bug in recent years, you’ll know exactly where the deck is. If you are not, it is in the junk drawer beside the shoehorn and the jackknife, and yes the drawer does need to be cleaned out, but that can wait til the weekend, or never. Got the deck? Good. Does the pattern on the back have a naked cherub on a bike? That’s a Bicycle deck. A Greek god-dy guy in a shell? That’s a Hoyle. A lattice of crosshatched lines forming tiny diamonds? That’s the Bee. Those brands all have distinguished histories and they are all now made and distributed by USPC.
Does your deck feature a prominent circle with feather-like internal spokes surrounded by various geometric patterns? Probably not. But if you do, congratulations, you’ve got a Tally-Ho deck. Its history is equally distinguished, it is also made and distributed today by USPC, and it is our designated also-ran in a category where many could claim the distinction.
Tally-Ho is Andrew Dougherty’s doing. He was a native of County Donegal in Ireland who began making playing cards in Brooklyn in the 1840s. His early efforts were considered crude and unsophisticated but apparently the games-players at the time were equally so because the business was successful, growing through the ensuing decades. Belying either an immigrant’s patriotism or an immigrant’s opportunism, his Civil War era American Card series included an Army & Navy deck featuring bayonette-bearing soldiers, ironclad warships, drummer boys, and a majestic eagle on the wrapper.
In the 1870s, Dougherty was among the first to round the corners of his cards and to produce double-ended cards which did not have to be held “right side up.” He also was among the first to add corner indices to cards so their value could be seen even when held in a tight fan. (The story of his “Triplicate” design, which competed with a model called “Squeezers,” is a fascinating tale in and of itself.)
If Dougherty was not the boldest or most creative card designer, he appears to have been expert at anticipating what would sell and figuring out how to sell it. In 1885, he came out with the Tally-Ho. In addition to the “circle back” pattern described above, the decks were also made with a “fan back” pattern with birds adorning circular fan faces. In later models, the Joker is a fox-hunting dandy with a riding crop. Still in production today, the Tally-Ho is one of the most enduring playing card designs in history. It was Doyle Lonnegan’s deck of choice in the movie “The Sting.”
It’s all very impressive. Until you look at the competition.
In the 1880s, cycling of all sorts – bi, tri, and even uni – was growing rapidly in popularity. So much so that the folks at USPC decided to launch a deck with a bicycle design. The Bicycle brand has been in continuous production since 1885, with multiple variations on the bicycle motif over the years, including the classic “Rider Back” pattern, which began in 1887. When you read a description like “cherub on a bike” you may not perceive the design in your mind’s eye, but when you actually see the image (as above), you’ll know you’ve known it forever. The fox-hunting dandy? Not so much.
Where Are They Now?
Bicycle is the most popular and recognizable playing card brand in the world. This would be evidence enough of Tally-Ho’s also-ran status, but the corporate histories of the main players in this arena are also germane. And the corporate history comes down to the USPC gobbling everyone else up. Around the turn of the last century, they bought up several competitors, including Dougherty and the other major East Coast manufacturer of the time, The New York Consolidated Card Company. From them, USPC acquired not only the Tally-Ho brand but also the Bee brand, a classic first introduced in 1892, which is one of the primary decks in use today in casinos worldwide.
More recently, USPC bought Europe’s largest manufacturer, Heraclio Fournier, in 1986; Arrco (the number three US company at the time) in 1987; Hoyle (named for the famous 18th century rules maven Edmund Hoyle) in 2001; and KEM (a maker of plastic cards popular in poker tournaments) in 2004, amongst others. So whether you are staring at bikes, fans, grids, aviators, or clamshells, you are looking at a card made by USPC.
The market for playing cards has got to be brutally competitive. I would not want to be in it, and I’m not sure the people who are in it want to be in it either, since they all seem to sell out as soon as they gain any traction whatsoever.
As a consumer product, the playing card deck is about as commoditized as you can get. (Any product hanging on a rack beside a drug store checkout is, almost by definition.) Means of production well-established, margins slim, opportunity for innovation close to nil. Yeah, you can get your family photo printed on a custom deck from Zazzle for ten bucks, that’s pretty innovative, but something tells me the cherub on the bike is not greatly worried. Mikey is still going to pick up a new Bicycle deck on his way to the monthly game.
On the casino side, there’s big money to be had in playing cards, no doubt. (In Asia, they only use baccarat decks once and then discard them!) Standalone card vendors are not major players, however, as large companies offer a range of gambling equipment. USPC, for example, is peddling a high security, high-tech dealer shoe… that only works with a Bee deck, of course.
So, bottom line, it’s not that surprising to see companies agreeing to acquisition, and to not see a lot of new upstarts eager to enter the game. This makes for an environment where the winner simply squats, and where the also-rans, after taking down their shingles and entering the house of their largest competitor, are treated like family.