The History of the Joker Card
The Joker: Top 100th Villain of all Time
Scholars have almost uniformly credited Americans with the creation of the Joker card. Although some authors assert that the Joker first appeared in the card game of Poker, most maintain that it was first invented for the game of Euchre around 1850 to 1860. At that time, card manufacturers were including an extra “blank card” in their decks of 52, and the Joker card found a use as the third and Best Bower in Euchre. Eventually the blank card or Best Bower developed into the Joker card, as suggested by card historian Catherine Perry Hargrave and others(1) . Well before 1850, card manufacturers were not only making cards for games, but they also were making blank cards for other purposes. One card collector of the International Playing Card Society (IPCS) has found 250 secondary uses for the blank card.
No card in the American deck has inspired more characters and uses than the Joker card. By the mid-1870s, the card depicted a jocular imp, jester or clown. Many characters were also employed, and the blank card became popular for politics, social satire, and advertising. In the 20th century, the Joker card inspired the creation of the Batman character in the comic books of the 1940s. Later, various movies represented the Joker as a notorious character who was a humorous, and sadistic trickster. In 2006, portrayed in a wickedly humorous manner, the joker was rated as number one on Wizard Magazine’s “Greatest Villains of All Time.” For card collectors, the joker card is the most coveted card in the deck due to the variety of styles and incarnations.
Currently, there are claims that the word “Jucker” influenced the establishment of the word “Joker” in Euchre. What one card historian made as a suggested origin of the joker has now turned into almost a certainty for many readers and some writers. For example, a Wikipedia article on the Joker playing card erroneously states, “It is believed that the term “Joker” comes from [the word] Jucker…”(2) However, no proof has been provided with references to substantiate this claim. Euchre was America’s National Card Game from about 1850 to 1910, so its history should be updated as best as we know it. In introducing games or variants of games, it has been said that apparent genius generally amounts to nothing more than the changing or blending of one or two concepts into the game of consideration (i.e., Euchre).
The same applies to the creation of the Joker card in Euchre. This article will detail how the wild card, the Jack of Clubs, coupled with the extra 'blank card' added to American decks of cards, developed into the Joker as we know it today.
I expect that there will be some skepticism," Babcock said about the discovery. "There should be. But I think it will cause some excitement. And it will probably cause some people to look harder at the rocks they already have. Sometimes it's just a matter of thinking differently about the same specimen."— Anon
The Wild Card in Three Card Brag
Concepts from one game may be incorporated to modify another game. The wild card, as the J♣ in Three Card Brag, provided a vehicle to later impact the game of Euchre. Brag was an old English gambling game which became popular during the 1700s. Brag was also very popular with American colonists, especially in the South. President Madison’s wife, Dolly, was a card player, as documented in 1803. During her time, a letter states, “Cards were a great resource of an evening, and gaming was all the fashion, at Brag especially, for the men who frequented society were chiefly from Virginia or Western States and were very fond of this the most gambling of all games as being one of countenance as well as cards(3).”
As colonists moved west after the Revolutionary War, their favorite game of Brag moved with them. Brag used all 52 cards and employed a special “wild card,” the J♣, which was called a bragger. In Brag, it is believed that this Jack of Clubs as a wild card was probably borrowed from an older gambling game called Lanterlu (or “Loo” for short) which has a high trump card called Pam or Pamphile. Pam was later called “Mistigris,” in another game, and “Mouche.”(4) This game may have been popular in Louisiana at about the time Poker came into existence from Poque.
My belief is that the concept of the J♣ as a wild card in Brag gave rise to the Joker card in Euchre. It should be noted that the Left Bower in Euchre is similar in that it is not a ‘natural trump.’ The Left Bower can be viewed as a ‘wild card’ that gets promoted to trump second in rank for each hand.
It is the game of Brag that is important to our discussion. Descriptions of Brag can be found in most of the Hoyle books on card games from as early as 1725. For example, from The Compleat Gamester(5), 1725, 5th ed., Brag is described as using the J♣ as a wild card, but the 9♦ could be used as another wild card if all players agreed. Brag consisted of three stakes. Three cards were dealt to the players, and the player who held the best card won the first stake. What is important is that the second stake was won by “bragging” or “bluffing” that a player held was a better hand than his or her opponent. Bluffing in Brag is similar to bluffing in poker. Initially, Poker was called “Bluff” for several years. From 1830s to 1850s, Brag had more of an impact on Poker than any other card game. The best hand combination or pair-royal in Brag won the second stake, or you could win by Bluffing your opponent that you held the best hand. The Jack of Clubs as a “wild card” called a “Bragger” could be paired with any other card(s) to make pair-royal.
Development of Poker
Poker is given credit as an American game, developed by French-Americans in Louisiana from the game called Poque, possibly influenced by a French game called Bouillotte.(6) It was played with 20 cards. At first, the game was called 20 Card Poker,(7) and commonly played in the South and in the West beginning in the early 1820s. There were many similarities between Brag and Poker. For our purposes, the main elements that Brag and Poker share are gambling, and bluffing. 20 Card Poker was limited by the number of players, and the maximum number of players who could participate was four.
Jonathan Green first documented in his 1843 book, An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling,(8) that Poker was played two ways, with 20 cards and with a full deck of 52 cards. Adding the full deck was influenced by Brag was an important element in making the transition to Poker as we know it today. Jonathan Green was a reformed gambler. His book was about the evils of gambling and the black leg cheaters. He intentionally avoided describing games. Green says nothing about the blank card for Poker or Euchre. He may or may not have been aware of players using the extra blank card. In 1845, Henry Anners, in his book Hoyle’s Games, describes 52 card Poker and Euchre.(9) This is the first time 52 card Poker or “Bluff’ is documented.
The Blank Card Comes of Age in Euchre
I surmise that Brag, which used a wild card, the J♣, was introduced into the game of Euchre and was the origin of the modern Joker. The games of Poker, Brag, and Euchre were all popular at the same time on the western rivers (the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi). Gamblers played multiple games, and this afforded them the opportunity for introducing the “wild card” concept in Brag to infiltrate the games of Poker and Euchre, perhaps simultaneously. Probably a professional gambler, or several at the same table, got the idea to use the extra blank card. In both Poker and Euchre, the J♣ and 9♦, which were wild cards in Brag, were already in use. The “extra Blank Card” that manufacturers had added to their decks could be used as the “wild card” or best bower in Euchre and as the Mistigri in Poker. The timing of this was during the late 1840s to early 1850s in the West. It took time for the blank card as an additional bower to be accepted by Euchre players and make its way eastward.
Charles Meehan (aka, The Professor) in his 1862 book, The Laws and Practice of the Game of Euchre(10), was obviously unaware of the “extra blank card” being used as an additional best bower. He never mentioned it but did include several variations of the game: Lap, Slam, Jambone and Jamboree. These game variations were new, and said to have been popular in the South and West. He thought the game of Euchre had a German background because of the word “bauer” but also said the Germans were not aware of the game.
In 1852, Thomas W. Strong published a popular humor magazine entitled “Yankee Notions.” Then in 1856, he designed new playing cards totally different from the classic cards for a series of 16 new games which he named Yankee Notions. His purpose of designing these new games was to give card players some alternatives instead of using traditional cards which were associated with gambling vices. Strong’s Yankee Notions were first published in Hoyle’s Games(12), in 1857, edited by Thomas Frere, and were also in several other later editions as well. When his new games were published, the newspaper, New York Commercial Advertiser, stated, “We are glad to see something in the way of domestic games, and social amusement, that we can recommend, not only for scientific and instructive character, but for its good moral influence(11).” These games were popular for at least thirty years (1857 - 1887) for those not wanting to use classic cards and games.
Strong devised three elements different from classic cards: reduced the deck to 50 cards, initiated five suits, and added all new names. One of the Yankee Notions games of major importance as related to the development of the joker was called “Black Joke.” In this game, all ten face cards were called Jokers and were printed with various humorous characters.
Game of Black Joke - 1856
A hand with no Jokers was called a “Black Joke,” the name of the game. What is important about this game is that the word “Joke” with its various humorous characters may have influenced some of the characters used later for the blank card in Euchre. This also documents that the joker concept was already established as an American innovation before the word "Joker" was introduced in the game of Euchre by the mid-1860s. These games and cards called Yankee Notions, never became very popular and faded away by 1890 because players favored traditional cards and classic games.
It appears that Samuel Hart was aware of the “blank card” being used as a third and best bower at least by 1857. Catherine Perry Hargrave noted in her book A History of Playing Cards, that a joker by Samuel Hart in his brand called Club House Cards, dated 1857,(13) appears to be one of the first jokers. Another Joker card by the American Playing Card Company made their famous patriotic Union Cards, dated 1862, and is in the collection of the National Museum, Smithsonian Institution.(14) What is also of interest is that another joker card of 1863, by Samuel Hart, was labeled as an “Imperial Bower” – “This Card takes either Bower.”(15) Hart’s joker of 1863 was not the first joker as some card historians have claimed. At least two jokers were made before 1863 and possibly more but were lost to history.
The first publication of the word “Joker” in a book appears in The Modern Pocket Hoyle 4th ed. in 1868, by “Trumps”(16). The Modern Pocket Hoyle lists a variant game called Railroad Euchre. Quoting from this Hoyle, “A Euchre pack is usually accompanied by a specimen blank card which has given rise to this amusing variety of the game of Euchre. It is called “the Joker,” highest trump card, and ranks above the right bower.” This statement was commonly used for several years in books covering the description of Euchre. It was not unusual for various names to be used in conjunction with the blank card in the deck, such as the Imperial Bower, Best Bower, White Knight, Little Joker, Jolly Joker, Benny, Specter, Ghost and Joker until early 1890s. It took time for this innovation to be accepted. For example, Charles Meehan authored the description of Euchre for The American Hoyle, 1864 and 1866 editions, without making reference to the blank card as a best bower. The journal, Notes and Queries, (10th S. I. Feb 6, 1904, p 117), stated “The employment of an extra card as a master card appears to have been introduced about the same time into the game of poker, but in neither game was it first known as the joker. In euchre it was called “the imperial trump” or “the best bower,” in poker, “mistigris.” Thus, the name "joker" given to the blank card most likely came into existence just prior to 1868.
It should be of interest to joker researchers and collectors that throughout this entire time period, the word “Juker” cannot be found associated with Euchre or the joker card by American or British writers. This is not surprising because the connection between Jucker-spiel and Euchre was not known until 1990 (as published in The Oxford Guide to Card Games, 1990). Based on extensive research, it is ludicrous and without reference to suggest the word “Juker” influenced the word “Joker” for the blank card or best bower. The word “Joker,” meaning to joke or to be humorous, had been around for many decades. It is worth noting that Thomas W. Strong used the term "The Jolly Joker" in his magazine Yankee Notions, Vol. VIII, 1859 before it was used in Euchre a decade later. However, this was in reference to his comic stories and jokes not cards.
The Choice of the Word "Joker"
Some card historians seem to have overlooked the fact that the game of Tarot was known in America during the late 19th century. The game of Tarot was popular enough to be described in several editions of the book entitled The Standard Hoyle, Excelsior Publishing House (19), 1887 ed., 1904 ed. and 1912 ed. In describing the game of Tarot, he states: “There is one more Tarot [card] called the fool or the joker. This is a card which has neither hearts, diamonds, clubs nor spades on it, but is pictured like a jack. It is the highest trump and can take everything. The tarots take all the other cards, as would trumps, the joker being the highest, the one of tarots the lowest.” In this game a pack of 54 cards was used in the United States. It is quite amazing that the author equates the fool as the joker and describes the Fool as a “Jack”. The point of this is that the game of Tarot was known in the United States in the late 19th century, where the Fool card was depicted with the same characteristics of the Joker card in the standard deck of cards.
Another source on cards was the book Facts and Speculation on the Origin of Playing Cards(17), 1848, by William Andrew Chatto. This book was available to card manufacturers to read up on card history and the Tarot’s Fool card. The joker can be thought of as first cousin to Le Fou, The Fool of the Tarot deck. The Fool card has a history going back several hundred years. In the early 19th century, its role is noted as the highest “trump card” that can beat all of the other cards. Tarot deck authority, Dr. Robert O’Neill, says, “The ancestor of the modern joker is the classic tarot’s Fool(18).” However, the Joker card and the Fool card are not one and the same. O’Neill explains, the Fool “belongs to a set of 22 trumps, the Fool does not stand as an individual subject.” The Joker card in Euchre as best bower is similar to the Fool card as it belongs to no suit in particular, yet is ranks as the highest card of all suits.
My theory is that once Euchre players started using the extra blank card as a third bower (as early as 1850), it was logical for card players to call it the 'Best Bower'. Cards labeled as the “Joker” evolved subsequently, and became common after 1900. It was the card manufacturers who settled on a uniform name for the blank card. The term best bower only applied to Railroad Euchre and not to the regular game. Perhaps card manufacturers saw the writing on the wall that the joker could be used in a wide variety of ways that included new games and advertising. With just a little research, they realized it was obvious that they should select a name that had to meld with the existing Court Cards (King, Queen, Knaves) in their decks and with the concept of having power over all the cards. Card players liked the classic cards dressed as royalty of the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time period, the King’s Royal Court always had a jester, trickster or buffoon who was given freedom to entertain. The King’s fool was seen as a trickster, someone having special mystical powers. Card manufacturers did not have to look very far before finding a good choice since the word “Joker” had already been used in the game of Black Joke of Yankee Notions in late 1850s. What reinforces this is that one of the first character jokers was labeled as 'The ‘Little Joker’ - by Andrew Dougherty appeared mid-1860s (Hochman AD7), a baby popping out of a box - pictured as a Jack-in-the-Box and looks similar to the Joker card #2 - 'The Baby' from Yankee Notions. The Jack-in-the-Box may have been a metaphor with the "Jack," meaning a Bower which suddenly appears in a player's hand in the game of euchre.
In summary, two key elements came together to create the joker card in Euchre. One was the wild card in Brag, and the other was the extra blank card added by card manufactures to each deck of cards. I conclude that the Joker card is a direct descendant of the wild card, J♣, from the game of Brag. At about the same time Poker made a transition to using 52 cards, card players began to incorporate the extra blank card as a wild card in both Poker and Euchre, probably simultaneously. At first, players simply called the blank card “the best bower” because that is exactly what it was in the game of Euchre. Other names were subsequently applied to the blank card. After a while, card manufacturers wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to settle on a word that gave universal appeal and as a best fit to the existing court cards. The word “Joker” was an obvious choice that met their requirements and provided for a multitude of future purposes.
1 Hargrave, Catherine Perry A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Dover Publications, New York, 1966, p332 to 362
2Joker card (Note: Wikipedia says, “term "Joker" comes from "Juker”)
3 Clark, Allen C. Life and letters of Dolly Madison, 1914 (Note: Brag was popular in 1803, p54)
5 Cotton, Charles The Compleat Gamester 5TH ED. 1725, P68 (J♣ as Wild Card)
6Bouillotte (Note: a French game, played with 20 cards)
7History of Poker: notes 20 card Poker
8 Green, Jonathan An exposure of the arts and miseries of gambling (1843)., Philadelphia
9 Anners, Henry F. Hoyle’s Games, 1845: 52 card Poker called Bluff, 20 card Poker and Euchre
10 Meehan, Charles (The Professor) The Laws and Practice of the Game of Euchre, 1862
11 Frere Thomas Hoyles’ Games, 1857 publisher T. W. Strong,
12 Ibid. (see Black Joke in Hoyle's Games p167 - 168)
13 Hargrave, Catherine Perry A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Dover Publications, New York, 1966, p362. Joker attributed to Samuel Hart, in USPCC collection.
14 U.S. National Museum - Smithsonian Institution on History of Playing Cards, 1896, p. 941 (Note: Union cards, American Playing Card Co. deck with Joker dated 1862)
15 Hart, Samuel, Imperial Bower, - This Card takes either Bower, www.wopc.co.uk,
16 “Trumps” (aka, William Brisbane Dick), The Modern Pocket Hoyle, 4th ed. 1868.
17 Chatto, William Andrew, Facts and Speculation on the Origin of Playing Cards, 1848
18 O’Neill, Robert V., ICONOLOGY OF THE FOOL CARDS
19 Excelsior Publishing House, The Standard Hoyle, 1887(Note: also included in 1904 & 1912 editions)
Questions & Answers
What is the general purpose of the joker in a deck of playing cards?
Generally, the use of the Joker in card games is as a wild card. It belonged to no suit, yet was a master card of all suits. In Euchre, it was always the highest ranking trump card. If the trump suit changed, the Joker changed as needed. It was the card of opportunity to become anything you desired. In Poker, it could be paired with any card, taking on the same value of the card with which it was paired. The Joker became an integral feature of several games. The Joker card was an American invention.
What is a bower? How are bowers related to euchre?
In Euchre, when the trump suit is declared, a Jack then becomes a "Bower" and a high trump card. There are two Bowers in the trump suit, and the Jack of suit declared trump is the Right Bower. The other bower, Left Bower, is the other Jack of the same color suit. This is probably the most complicated principle of Euchre.
© 2019 Phil R Neill