Vanderbilt’s Latest Treasure: Playing Cards And Gaming Memorabilia Dating Back To The Renaissance

Sep 1, 2017

One of the largest collections of books and manuscripts about the history of playing cards is now in the possession of the Vanderbilt library.

The university has purchased more than a thousand pieces of memorabilia that previously belonged to Bicycle Cards, which the library hopes will make Vanderbilt a destination for scholars around the world.

This includes a volume of original designs for the backs of cards by Owen Jones, a 19th-century graphic artist. Vanderbilt's head librarian, Valerie Hotchkiss, notes that this might be of interest to art scholars. There are also documents on legal cases about gambling and literature about card games.

"Already, just getting to know this collection, I've probably identified 25 dissertation topics," Hotchkiss says.

Even the divinity school could find this acquisition useful: Hotchkiss pulls out a book of sermons from the 15th century and flips to one that laments the evils of playing cards, but "it isn't as bad as what has just appeared on the scene, and that would be tarot cards."

"He describes what tarot cards are and lists all the tarot cards," she says. "This is the first time in the history of the world that the idea of tarot is described and that tarot cards are listed, and Vanderbilt — Nashville — has this manuscript."

Hotchkiss says libraries build their reputations on special collections like this one, which preserve historical manuscripts and rare books and make them accessible to researchers.

The decision to invest in card memorabilia is not completely random. Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, the great-grandson of the school's founder, helped invent modern-day bridge. The new items will be added to a collection of his papers about the game.