The Ace of Spades (also known as the Spadille and Death Card) is traditionally the highest and most valued card in the deck of playing cards in English-speaking countries. The actual value of the card varies from game to game.
The ornate design of the ace of spades, common in packs today, stems from the 17th century, when James I and later Queen Anne imposed laws requiring the ace of spades to bear an insignia of the printing house. Stamp duty, an idea imported to England by Charles I, was extended to playing cards in 1711 by Queen Anne and lasted until 1960.
Over the years, a number of methods were used to show that duty had been paid. From 1712 onwards, one of the cards in the pack, usually the ace of spades, was marked with a hand stamp. In 1765 hand stamping was replaced by the printing of the official ace of spades by the Stamp Office, incorporating the royal coat of arms. In 1828 the Duty Ace of Spades (known as "Old Frizzle") was printed to indicate a reduced duty of a shilling had been paid.
One maker of cards was caught in possession of forged aces and the equipment to produce them. This was a capital offence, the prosecutor the Attorney General Spencer Perceval (later to become the prime minister assassinated in 1812) obtained the conviction of Richard Harding and he was hanged in 1805. The association of the ace of spades with death may spring from such events.
The system was changed again in 1862 when official threepenny duty wrappers were introduced and although the makers were free to use whatever design they wanted, most chose to keep the ornate ace of spades that is popular today. The ace of spades is thus used to show the card manufacturer's information.
Since 1882, an annual pack of cards has been produced by the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards at the installation of each master and since 1888, a portrait of the Master has appeared at the centre of the ace of spades.
The exact design of the ace card was so important, it eventually became the subject of design patents and trademarking. For example, on 5 December 1882, George G. White was granted U.S. design patent US0D0013473 for his design. His ace design was adorned with male and female figures leaning onto the spade from either side.
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The ace of spades has been employed on several occasions in the theatre of war. In the First World War, the 12th (Eastern) Division of the British Army used the Ace of spades symbol as their insignia. In the Second World War, the 25th Infantry Division of the Indian Army used an Ace of Spades on a green background as their insignia.
In World War II, the soldiers of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the American 101st Airborne Division were marked with the spades symbol painted on the sides of their helmets. In this capacity, it was used to represent good luck, due to its fortunate connotations in card playing. Following the confusion of a large-scale combat airborne operation, all four card-suits were used for ease of identification of regiments within the airborne division. Battalions within the regiments were denoted with tic marks or dots, struck from top clockwise: headquarters at the twelve o'clock position, 1st Battalion at the three o'clock, etc.
During the Vietnam War, some U.S. troops falsely believed that Vietnamese traditions held the symbolism of the spade to mean death and ill-fortune and in a bid to frighten and demoralise Viet Cong soldiers, it was common practice to leave an ace of spades on the bodies of killed Vietnamese. This custom was said to be so common that the United States Playing Card Company was asked by Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment to supply crates of that single card in bulk. The plain white tuck cases were marked "Bicycle Secret Weapon", and the cards were deliberately scattered in villages and in the jungle during raids. The ace of spades, while not a symbol of superstitious fear to the Viet Cong forces, did help the morale of American soldiers. Some U.S. soldiers and Marines were reportedly sticking this card in their helmet band as a sort of anti-peace sign.
In 2003, a deck of most-wanted Iraqi playing cards was issued to U.S. soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with each card displaying the picture of a wanted Iraqi official on it. Saddam Hussein was placed on the "Ace of Spades" card.
Various idioms involving the ace of spades include "black as the ace of spades," which may refer either to completely black; totally without light or colour, colour, race, (lack of) morality, or (lack of) cleanliness in a person.[a]
The French expression fagoté comme l'as de pique translates to "(badly) dressed like the ace of spades."
- U+1F0A1 🂡 PLAYING CARD ACE OF SPADES is part of the playing cards in Unicode
- ^ For an example of the card referring to race, see Aaron McGruder, Public Enemy #2: An All-New Boondocks Collection (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005), front cover.
- ^ "Spadille". Archived from the original on 19 October 2015.
- ^ "Death Cards - Psychological Operations". www.psywarrior.com. Archived from the original on 15 July 2014.
- ^ "The Tarot Death Card". Archived from the original on 26 December 2007. Retrieved 11 February 2009.
- ^ Knuckle, White, A Brief History of Playing Cards, archived from the original on 1 February 2012, retrieved 22 November 2013
- ^ Hughes, E (2004). The English Stamp Duties, 1664-1764. Vol. 56, no.222 (April 1941). English Historical Review. p. 245.
- ^ a b Schott, Ben (2004). "Card Tax & The Ace of Spades". Schott's Sporting, Gaming & Idling Miscellany. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 62. ISBN 0-7475-6924-X.
- ^ Monger, Garry (2012). "The Ace of Spades". The Fens. 30: 20-21.
- ^ "Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards". Archived from the original on 5 December 2020. Retrieved 2 December 2020.
- ^ White, George (5 December 1882). "Design No 13,473". pdfpiw.uspto.gov. United States Patent and Trademark Office. Archived from the original on 7 September 2021. Retrieved 7 September 2021.
- ^ "12th (Eastern) Division". The Long, Long Trail. Archived from the original on 29 November 2020. Retrieved 2 December 2020.
- ^ "25th Infantry Division (India)". www.longlongtrail.co.uk. Archived from the original on 21 January 2021. Retrieved 2 December 2020.
- ^ Childs, Fred (31 August 2018). "The Ace of Spades". Charlie Company. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
- ^ Brown, Charles (2022). "Ace of Spades in Vietnam psychological warfare". History.net. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine
- ^ Hank, Mark (12 December 2011). "The Ace of Spades is Different". Usefully Useless: Everything You'd Never Learn at School (But May Like to Know). Square Peg. p. 151. ISBN 978-0224086639.
- ^ "Ace of Spades or Secret Weapon Death Playing Cards at Newt's Playing Cards". Archived from the original on 26 December 2007.
- ^ "Our History". Bicycle Playing Cards. Archived from the original on 21 November 2018. Retrieved 14 December 2018.
- ^ McManus, James (28 September 2010). "The Opposite of a Peace Sign". Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. Picador. ISBN 9780312430085.
- ^ Gandhi, Lakshmi (23 September 2013). "Is It Racist To 'Call a Spade a Spade'?". NPR. Archived from the original on 11 May 2015., Codeswitch, National Public Radio, 23 September 2013 (retrieved 14 June 2014).
- ^ "Black as the Ace of spades". www.thefreedictionary.com. Archived from the original on 7 September 2021. Retrieved 2 December 2020.
- ^ "As". Cassell's New French Dictionary (5th ed.). New York, Funk & Wagnalls. 1951.