Why is the Ace of Spades Called the Death Card?

People have associated this card with death for centuries, but why?

During the Vietnam War, card decks like this one were used as a form of psychological warfare. Photo © Chris Raymond

Every month, Ohio's Horseshoe Casino Cleveland uses and discards roughly 16,000 decks of playing cards, or more than 192,000 decks annually. Given that the estimated number of casinos in the U.S. exceeds 15,000, the number of decks of playing cards used each year in American casinos alone assumes mind-boggling proportions.

Yet, whether you frequent the gaming tables in Cleveland, Las Vegas or elsewhere, you probably give little thought to the symbols and history associated with the playing cards in your hand.

This article explores the symbolism and meaning behind the ace of spades, and explains why many people consider it the "death card."

A Brief History of Playing Cards

In order to understand why the ace of spades is considered the death card, it's necessary to know a little about the origin of playing cards and the symbols we generally take for granted. While the history of playing cards is somewhat clouded, it's generally accepted that the Chinese started using "paper dominoes" sometime in the 10th century in their recreational games. Eventually, trade spread from Central Asia westward, and imported playing cards appeared in Europe before the end of the 1400s.

At that time, playing cards were handcrafted and individually hand painted, ensuring only royalty and the wealthy could afford them. But, in time, French manufacturers standardized the four playing-card suits, their shapes and their colors in order to make playing-card production easier and less expensive.

This increased the widespread usage of playing cards throughout Europe, England and, ultimately, the British colonies in North America.

Sometime around the start of the 19th century, Americans started producing their own playing cards and, over the years, continued to refine and standardize the decks.

This included innovations such as rounding the corners to reduce wear and tear, and using varnish on the surfaces to make them easier to shuffle and increase durability, among other things. In 1867, three men founded a printing business in Cincinnati, Ohio, that would ultimately evolve into the United States Playing Card Company. Today, that company holds the number-one market position in terms of U.S. sales, and its Bicycle brand has become synonymous with playing cards.

The Origin of the Ace of Spades as the Death Card

As noted above, playing cards gradually evolved over time from the sets first developed by the Chinese in the 900s. As playing cards spread westward over the centuries, the look and depiction of the four card suits and face cards, among other things, were subject to individual, regional and cultural tastes and refinements. For instance, the Italians depicted the forerunner of the modern spade symbol as a sword, while playing cards produced in Germanic countries used a leaf standing on its stem for the same symbol/suit.

In order to simplify the design of playing-card suits to aid in their mass-production, the French used the silhouette of the Germanic upturned leaf, which resembles the modern spade, but the spade symbol likely retained its association with war, killing and death. In Latin, the word spatha, the forerunner of the modern English word spade, means "broad, flat weapon or tool." In addition, the French referred to this suit as piques, meaning pikes. A pike was a two-handed stabbing weapon of warfare comprising a long wooden shaft topped by a flat, pointed blade. It's not difficult to see in our modern spade symbol the image of a pike blade.

Just as linguistically significant, however, is the fact that a spade also refers to a type of shovel with a wide, flat, thin blade, often used to dig a grave. Even in today's era of mechanical excavators, spades are still used by cemetery workers to crisply cut the grave outline in sod and/or to finish the sides/floor of the grave.

What forever sealed the association of the ace of spades as the "death card," however, occurred during the Vietnam War. According to the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), a pair of American lieutenants serving overseas wrote the company in February 1966 and asked USPCC to send them entire decks consisting of the ace of spades. Allegedly, the Viet Cong feared this card because of the superstitions surrounding it as a harbinger of death. In addition, The Bicycle brand uses Lady Liberty within its ace of spades symbol, which the enemy also reportedly considered the "goddess of death."

Similar to the deck shown in the photograph above, USPCC shipped thousands of these specialty decks overseas, where American troops used them as a form of psychological warfare against enemy forces in Vietnam. (The packaging housing each deck was even labeled: "Bicycle Secret Weapon.") Scattering these death cards in real or suspected hostile areas reportedly caused the Viet Cong to "flee." In addition, some American troops left a single ace of spades card on the body of an enemy kill as a calling card to indicate "We were here" or "We're coming for you" to inflict additional fear.

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