Walpole, N.H. Historical Society hosts playing card historian
WALPOLE, N.H. >> On Tuesday, Aug. 9, at 7 p.m., Gejus van Diggele, a Dutch historian and collector, will present "Secondary Use of Playing Cards," in Walpole.
Van Diggele will be coming from the Netherlands for the presentation, which is sponsored by the Walpole Historical Society.
In emails and a phone interview from his home near The Hague in the Netherlands, van Diggele explained that in the past, to save costs, the backs of playing cards were not printed.
"Leftover cards from incomplete decks were reused for about everything one can do with paper," he said. "People used them for writing, additional printing, constructing, drawing, painting, cutting, folding, etc."
Cards were used for secondary currency, to document a baby's life, and for secret love notes.
In New England, playing cards were often used as invitations to social events; invitations were printed or handwritten on the cards, which could then serve as tickets. Van Diggele said those cards inspired him to learn more about social life in North America around 1800 — "music, dances, fashion, food and drinks, transportation."
His collection includes several invitations to balls in Rockingham and Walpole. He has visited Walpole twice to research the life of Susan Lane, a miller's daughter who lived in the town in the early 19th century. Although a fire in 1917 destroyed documents in the Walpole Town Hall, he was able to piece together information about her.
"I visited the town in 2006 and 2007, and Susan Vose of the Historical Society was so kind to give me some information about the Lane family from a book published after the fire. A few years later I could buy the book on eBay. I also started collecting old pictures of Walpole, and I obtained a few 1800s newspapers," he said. "I was able to reconstruct a great part of the Lane family history."
He said his interest in playing cards began with games.
"I was always interested in games and playing games, and I started collecting games," he recalled. "But our apartment was not that large, and the games were taking a lot of space, so I said to my wife, 'I will change my collection to playing cards because they take up less space.'"
He explained that playing cards, which originated in China in the seventh century, came to Europe around 1360, and came to the Americas with Christopher Columbus. "His men were playing cards and it was said that playing cards on a ship brought bad luck, and they had a lot of trouble, so they were ordered to throw all the cards overboard, but some people kept them," van Diggele said. "That's the story."
After collecting complete packs of cards, he began to notice that some were used for other purposes.
"It was fascinating, but there was one problem," he noted. "You couldn't find them, and the only examples I saw were in museums."
Then one day a London playing-card dealer showed him an album with 400 cards that had been repurposed.
"Over a couple of years, I bought almost his entire collection, and that was a great start," said van Diggele. "Now I have over 5,000 secondary-use playing cards."
The cards are small windows on everyday life.
"Every find is a kind of surprise," van Diggele commented. "You never know what you'll find, or where, or when. A couple of years ago, I obtained a bundle of cards. It was very old and very dirty, and the cards inside the bundle were cleaner than the ones outside."
The bundle turned out to be the administrative records of an Amsterdam gold dealer — how much gold he sold in a year. In the second half of the seventeenth century, a lover used a playing card to write a message to his mistress. Van Diggele read the text.
"Dear mademoiselle," it said, "the wind has made the leaves fall from the bushes and trees, and currently we don't have a place to hide, but soon it will be spring and we will meet again."
Cards continue to find new secondary uses.
"I was giving a talk in Toronto, and I said, 'I have 250 uses,'" van Diggele recalled, "and then I said, 'Correction — now I have 251."
He had noticed that cards were being used to raise the projector.
Maggie Brown Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com.