We are all familiar with The Stamp Act of 1765 which was a tax on all paper documents levied on American colonists in order to pay off debt from the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).  Coming in the midst of economic hardship in the colonies, the Stamp Act aroused vehement resistance.  Parliament pushed forward with the Stamp Act in spite of the colonists’ objections and colonial resistance to the act eventually reached the point where opponents of the Stamp Act, calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, paraded through the streets of Boston with an effigy of Andrew Oliver, Boston’s stamp distributor, which they hanged from the Liberty Tree and beheaded before ransacking Oliver’s home. Bowing to pressure, and threats, from the colonies, Parliament eventually repealed the act in 1766.  But this was not the FIRST Stamp Act.

Following the War of Spanish Succession, Queen Anne found herself in a similar debt and imposed a levy very similar to the Stamp Act in 1711.   Documents and other paper items were taxed via the sale of stamped paper. The government sold pieces of paper with pre-printed revenue stamps on them and mandated that this paper be used for taxed products and unlike the Stamp Act of 1765, this act would remain on the books until 1960.

One enduring effect of this law is that in a standard deck of playing cards, the Ace of Spades is generally oversized relative to the other aces.  Decks of playing cards have been around since the 1300s and as innovations in printing emerged, the ability to mass-produce decks of cards increased and they quickly became a commodity throughout Great Britain. Initially, card manufacturers bought this taxed paper and used it to wrap their decks of cards but quickly, a problem arose. People would buy a deck of cards and dispose of the overwrap, thereby erasing any proof that they had paid the tax. The solution was to add a hand stamp to the top card in the deck, which was traditionally the ace of spades.  Since the tax as on the overwrapping paper no additional tax was charged for the extra stamp but this caused a new problem — you could now get a stamped ace without having purchased the taxed paper wrapper and where there is a tax loophole, there is always a tax evasion scheme. Card manufacturers started to avoid the tax.

In 1765 the government came up with a draconian solution: instead of selling stamped paper, the government would make aces of spades and they made it illegal for anyone else to (in the colonies we continued to add the stamp). Prior to this law all the Aces in a deck of cards were similar and generally consisted of just a plain pip in the center of the card.  This is still true today for playing cards manufactured in countries that were never part of Britain.  The government ace bore full card tax stamp (see below).

In 1862, the ban on creating your own aces of spades was lifted, but by then, the tradition of the large ace was cemented in the gamers’ experiences. Card manufacturers saw an opportunity to use this real estate to help their branding efforts and now the ace of spades typically tells players who made the deck and its place of manufacture.  As for the tax itself, this continued in the UK until 1960 (Queen Anne’s debts must have been MASSIVE!), when Parliament decided finding that collecting a tax on a deck of cards was more work than it was worth.   If they had paid attention to Samuel Adams they could have learned this way back in 1765.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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