No one who has ever played a game of cards, even just as a kid, is not very familiar with Bicycle Playing Cards. Even people who have never played a card game in their life probably picture those familiar blue or red decks when they picture a deck of cards.
There have been numerous variants over the years of the standard playing card deck, many themed with everything from the African Big 5 to Star Wars to classic pin-up girls, but none have overtaken Bicycle Cards in popularity. And regardless of what’s on the back of the card, the vast majority follow the same template set out by Bicycle on the front. It really wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Bicycle Cards, with their particular front, picture cards, Jokers and use of the French suits of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs, standardized its version of the classic 52-card deck.
But when and where did Bicycle Playing Cards first appear on the scene, why were they so popular and why are they called Bicycle Playing Cards anyway?
Bicycle Playing Cards have, in fact, been with us now for nearly 150 years. They were first printed in 1881 by the United States Printing Company, which, tellingly, soon changed its name to the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) by 1894.
The USPCC was based in Cincinnati, Ohio. and the company began life in the 1860s when A. O. Russell, Robert J. Morgan, James M. Armstrong and John F. Robinson Jr. joined together to start a new company in collaboration with the Cincinnati Enquirer, operating initially on two of the floors of the Enquirer’s building. Initially the company, which was first known as Russell, Morgan & Co. mostly printed circus and theatrical posters to so much success that they had to move out of the Enquirer premises for something bigger within the company’s first decade.
In 1880, A.O. Russell suggested to his partners that the company should start printing playing cards, with the first decks released the next year. By 1885, the famous Bicycle branding started to be used on these card decks, and so many of the cards’ trademark touches that we’re familiar with now were introduced at the time: two Jokers, a relatively recent American invention, would accompany a standard French-style 52-card deck. The Jokers were pictured riding bicycles past a landmark with the numbers 808 printed on them (the 808 was simply the product code of the Bicycle Card line at the USPCC) , the Aces bore the Bicycle trademark and would include the year of manufacturing, and the picture cards would be based on the familiar royal faces that are still the standard today.
As for the use of bicycles in the branding of the cards, the reason was simple: bicycles became hugely popular in the late 19th century and the company was merely capitalizing on a fad that, not for nothing, would last every bit as long as the cards themselves.
The past 140 years has only seen the Bicycle brand grow and grow, both in popularity and profitability. The USPCC is no longer based in Ohio, but is based in Erlanger, Kentucky, where Bicycle continues to be their most popular and long-lasting line. The company underwent many, many changes of ownership over the years and acquired numerous smaller playing card manufacturers as well, but its Bicycle line is as big as ever. They are available in poker size, bridge size, and pinochle decks, with “Jumbo Index” poker decks and Lo-Vision cards that are designed for the visually impaired. And, of course, they now also manufacture poker chips, which are also a huge seller for the company.