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Ace of spades

Ace of spades

The ace of spades (also known as the spadille) is commonly thought of as the highest-ranking card in the deck of playing cards, although the actual value of the card varies from game to game. In popular myth and folklore, it is also known as the "death card".

Design

The ornate design of the Ace of Spades, common in packs today, stems from the 18th century, when certain duties on playing cards were exacted by the monarchy. Stamp duty, an idea imported to England by William III, was extended to playing cards in 1711; this taxation 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 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.

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.

War

The Ace of Spades has been employed, on numerous occasions, in the theatre of war. In the Second World War, 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. All four card suits were used for ease of identification of regiments within the airborne division following the confusion of a large scale combat airborne operation. Battalions within the regiments were denoted with tic marks or dots, marked from top clockwise; Headquarters at the twelve o'clock position, 1st Battalion at the three o'clock, et cetera.

Some twenty years later, the Ace of Spades was again used by American soldiers — this time as a psychological weapon in the Vietnam War. US troops erroneously believed that Vietnamese ancient traditions held the symbolism of the spade to mean death and ill-fortune and in a bid to scare away NLF soldiers without firefight, it was common practice to leave an Ace of Spades on the bodies of killed Vietnamese and even to litter the forested grounds and fields with the card. This custom was erroneously believed to be so effective, that the Bicycle Playing Cards company was asked to supply crates of that single card in bulk. The crates were often marked with "Bicycle Secret Weapon".

The Ace of Spades, while not a symbol of superstitious fear to the NLF, did help the morale of American soldiers. It was not unheard of for US soldiers and Marines to stick this card in their helmet band as a sort of anti-peace sign. The Ace is also said to represent lost love.

More recently, in 2003 a deck of Most-wanted Iraqi playing cards issued to U.S. soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom; each card had the picture of a wanted Iraqi official on it. Saddam Hussein got the nickname "Ace of Spades" as his was the face which adorned that card.

References in popular culture

  • In Robert Louis Stevenson's story "The Suicide Club" (1878), the Ace of Spades functions as the "sign of death" within a secret society whose members commit "suicide" by submitting to be killed, if they draw the Ace of Spades from a pack of 52 cards during a club meeting, by another member drawing the Ace of Clubs.
  • The phrase black as the Ace of Spades is very commonly used, referring to objects, the sky at night, or a person of African descent with very dark skin. This is the origin of the racial epithet "spade".

See also

References

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