Whenever my in-laws come to visit us in Vancouver, we usually end up playing a board game, puzzle or card game in the evenings. Our last Christmas holiday was no exception, only when we decided to play a game we discovered that not one of our packs of cards were complete (cue the jokes about not playing with a full deck). My husband called up our neighbour to borrow a deck of cards, and I was surprised to see him return with a set that was obviously very old.
Bee Playing Cards have been around for the entire 20th century. This brand and style of cards were first printed in 1892 (which is why the Ace bears the number 92), but some sources have indicated that the No.92 Edition was printed in the U.S. beginning in 1928. This particular pack was made in Canada, though, and I am finding it difficult to gather any information about it.
From what I do know, Bee cards always indicated the edition on their Ace of Spades. This is from the No. 92 Club Special “Bee” Playing Cards, with the Cambric Finish on the backs. I’m not sure how long the No. 92 Edition was in circulation, or how long International Playing Card Co. Limited manufactured playing cards in Canada.
Choosing a Bee and Beehive as a symbol for playing cards is an interesting choice. Thanks to the vast information of freemasonry on the internet, we know that “The bee and the hive have long been symbols of industry and regeneration, wisdom and obedience, with a place in Egyption, Roman and Christian symbolism. The hive is often seen in Masonic illustrations of the 18th and 19th century and both Clovis and Napoleon adopted the bee as their symbol.” They are also, of course, enduring symbols of community and continuity. I can easily see how playing cards contribute to community, but their role in games and frivolity don’t really jive with industry and obedience. Cheating at cards, as immoral as anyone may find cheating, is a tradition of its own and a part of many western narratives.
The joker of the deck is another visual mystery:
The Joker is not only riding on the back of a bee, he seems to be dancing a little jig of sorts. Whether the Joker is meant to display dominance over the industrious bee (play comes before work?) or whether it is meant to be a playful take on the typical Joker card in its time, Bee Playing Cards managed to produce an enigmatic symbolic visual relationship between their brand and what might have been the visual status quo for playing cards.
Between the box the cards are housed in, the Ace card, the Joker card, and the written Guarantee, the Bee Brand of cards offer a veritable buffet of typographic styles. Some type appears to be hand-drawn and customized for the occasion, such as “Bee” on the box, while other type appears to be standard metal type. The type is wonderfully uneven in its print quality, where counter forms are filling in, or parts of the letterforms are faded, and this unintentionally adds to the visual relationship with the custom type.
Finally, there is a bit of irony in offering a guarantee for goods that are necessary items in games of chance. I’m curious to know how often consumer goods were actually guaranteed in 1892. Did this set Bee Playing Cards apart from competing brands of its time?