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How To Pick a Vintage Deck of Playing Cards for Your Collection

Posted by Reid Carlberg on

A Quick Primer on How to Buy Vintage Decks of Playing Cards

You can find a wide variety of vintage playing cards from all over the world and with pretty much any theme you might imagine.  Once you have an idea of what you're looking for, the question then becomes how much you want to spend.

The main considerations when you purchase a deck of vintage playing cards are:

  • How are you going to use them
  • Do you want a tax stamp representing a particular period of time
  • What kind of container do you want
  • Do you want general cards or do you want something that represents a particular geography or business
  • Is a particular brand important to you

What are Vintage Decks of Playing Cards Good For

You can easily find decks a wide variety of decks, but you should first ask yourself what you want to do with a vintage deck. Do you want to play with the cards?  Do you want to simply display them? Are you most interested in simply examining them?  Most vintage decks of playing cards are valued for their tuck and their vintage and not for the design on the individual playing cards.

In general, decks are more valuable when they are sealed in their original packaging. However, if you're collecting sealed deck, it's less likely you're going to actually play with it. Some examples of deck I've opened are the Western Airlines deck, the Northwest Orient Airlines "cards that talk" deck, and the Lucky Brand Jeans anniversary deck

 

All of these are examples of popular mass market decks.  Opening them is typically no big deal.  An example of an item I wouldn't open is the Olinger Funeral Home pair of decks, which is a pretty sweet find.  Let's talk about why.

Vintage Playing Card Decks with Tax Stamps

Tax Stamps were new to me when I first bought the Olinger Funeral Home decks. This particular pair of decks is in great condition, with intact cellophane and tax stamps. Olinger is also a fun local story for me because one of the locations is now a restaurant called Linger, which bills itself as an Eaturary.  Wink wink.

The picture above is a fine example of a vintage deck of playing cards from someplace in the mid 1950s to 1960s.  The slide out drawer style of case is very typical, and the cellophane, tax stamps and USPCC seal are all in tact.

The US IRS charged a per deck tax on decks through 1965, and other countries, notably Japan, also had per deck taxes.  Some states even had their own tax, such as Alabama, which kept it in place until 2015. Note that Peter Endebrock has the most complete reference on the stamps themselves and this Google site (of all things) is the best source of info on playing card tax rates.

Important: In most cases, if you have an intact tax stamp, the deck is worth more as a display item than it is for playing cards.  In fact, the tax stamp is an important part of what makes your particular deck interesting in the first place.

You can divide the tax stamps into a few eras: the most common today is 1940-1965, and it's easily identified as it refers to "1 Pack" on the sticker, instead of a denomination.  It's very difficult to provide a more precise age within that range, although I'm pretty confident I was able to narrow it down in the case of the Restokraft Noiseless Mattress deck, which is most likely between 1940 and 1953 based on other research I was able to do.

Tax stamps from all eras are generally canceled by whatever company paid the tax.  The most common today include the United States Playing Card Company, Brown & Bigelow, the American Playing Card Company and, of course, Sears.  That's right, Sears was deep in the playing card game back in the day.

Earlier Playing Card Deck Tax Stamps: 1929-1940

Tax stamps before 1940 includes an amount on them, and during this era that was usually $0.10 per deck.  Assuming 1930 dollars, that's about $1.64 a deck today--WOW!  Pretty amazing considering it's easy to get a basic deck for $3, and even a pretty nice entry level premium deck like Bicycle Sea King Playing Cards for under $6.

Having said that, decks from this era with intact cellophane and tax stamps and in a nice looking case, start to get pretty expensive and are really only suited to collectors and display cases. You should not open up one of these decks, especially if it is in good condition. If you are tempted to open it up, stop yourself.  Sleep on it. And then don't do it.

This particular deck below is most likely from the mid-1930s. The $0.10 stamp was in use from 1929-1940, and there's a date on the cards suggesting these scoring rules we effective as of 1932.  Notice that the tax stamp is cancelled AWG, which I am still researching.  This deck does not include a case.

Vintage Playing Card Deck Tucks and Cases

This is another place where vintage playing card decks really shine.  It's unusual for a 60+ year old deck of cards to be in good condition, so finding a case that matches what you want to display can take quite a bit of time.  There are a few typical kind of cases.  Keep in mind that printing and manufacturing technology have advanced quite a bit since your vintage deck of playing cards was actually made.  You need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

1. The single deck without a case.  This is relatively common.  Either the decks have been split up or the case simply didn't last.  Watch out for the cellophane in this case, as it's often easily damaged.

2. The single deck with a case. Relatively rare. Single decks in a case in good condition with a tax stamp are often promotional items or souvenirs.

3. Double decks in a double cardboard case.  These are very common, although the condition of the case and the condition of the cards vary quite a bit.  The Double deck was a common choice since many games popular in the mid 20th century had a custom of switching decks between hands.  These may or may not have sample cards on the bottom of the case to show the design inside.  These will usually have two different card back designs.

4. Double decks in a double plastic or metal case.  These are more unusual and a great find when they're in good condition. Sometimes you'll find promotional note included on the plastic.

5. Triple decks in a cardboard case.  Like the double cardboard, these are often in rough shape.  The two examples I have so far use the same design on each deck.

Geographical Considerations

Playing cards are a great way to celebrate a certain geography because they have been used as promotional items for a long, long time.  If you have a city that's meaningful to you, chances are good you can find a deck that celebrates it in some way.  I have decks from Colorado, Michigan, Idaho, California and many other locations.  This deck from Detroit celebrating Greenfield's restaurant is one of my absolute favorites.

How to Pick A Vintage Deck of Playing Cards

With all of this in mind, I recommend the following steps when picking a vintage deck of playing cards.

  1. Decide what your budget is. This will determine a number of other choices.
  2. Decide if you want a tax stamp.  This will increase your cost.
  3. Search eBay for Vintage Playing Cards or Vintage Playing Cards Tax Stamp.
  4. As you explore the cards, see if you can find ones listed as "new" or "unopened".
  5. Look for intact cellophane and a design you like.
  6. Look for a case in good condition.
  7. If geography is important to you, look for vintage promotional decks.

And that's about it!  You're sure to find a deck that interests you.