The Magic Café
[ Lost Password ]
  [ Forgot Username ]
The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Deck the Halls » » Review: High quality reproductions of classic 19th century transformation decks (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

View Profile
Inner circle
Reviewer EndersGame
1549 Posts

Profile of EndersGame
I love custom playing cards. But among the great variety of playing cards I've seen online and that are in my own collection, one type is a firm personal favourite: transformation decks.

If you're not familiar with transformation playing cards, these are cards where the pips of the four suits are cleverly incorporated into a larger image. For instance the Heart pips might be transformed into faces, or the Diamond pips might be transformed into boxes, or the Club pips might be transformed into animal paw prints. Usually these pips retain their normal orientation and location on the playing card, although when they are in unexpected positions the deck is considered to be semi-transformational.

Some absolutely stunning transformation decks have been produced over the years. They first started appearing in the 1800s, and after fading from popularity, they enjoyed some resurgence at the end of the 20th century, and now again in the modern crowdfunding era. I've given a broad overview of the history of transformation playing cards, including pictures of some of the very best, in a previous article here: The creativity and genius of transformation decks.

Will Roya from has a wealth of experience in producing playing cards with the help of crowdfunding, and like me he really appreciates transformation playing cards. He has been doing collectors a real service by bringing to life high quality reproductions of some of the best and most creative transformation decks of the 19th century. In this article, I'll give an overview of some of the reproduction decks he has produced in the last year, as well as cover a new project that is currently up for funding on Kickstarter.

Vanity Fair Playing Cards (1895)

A fine example of a project that Will Roya has already accomplished is a reproduction of the famous Vanity Fair deck from 1895.


This deck remains one of the finest examples of what the genre of transformation cards could produce in the late nineteenth century. The real attraction of this deck lies in the number cards with transformation art.


The Aces also received special attention. Even the two-way court cards were cleverly turned into comic figures (e.g. the King of Spades is smoking a pipe, the Queen of Spades holds a spoon, the Queen of Clubs holds a pickled cucumber with a fork), so each and every card is a unique and attractive work of art.


The Vanity Fair reproduction deck was produced with two different card backs, either a green with a simple pattern (Clown back), or a more ornately decorated red (Hobgoblin back).

Hustling Joe Playing Cards (1895)

The Hustling Joe deck also appeared originally in 1895, because the late 19th century was one of the golden eras for transformation playing cards.


The artwork of this deck was inspired by the classic "hustler", which is a trickster that would lure someone to gamble what appeared to be a sure-fire bet, only to discover afterwards that they had been scammed. Hustling Joe himself appears as a character on the signature Ace of Spades. Each suit also has its own focus, for example the Clubs depicts different spheres of activity for the police officer.


An interesting feature of this deck is that the cards were given different coloured backgrounds, which adds an extra degree of vibrancy and cheerfulness, appropriate for a deck that was intended to be comical and light-hearted. Not all the pips in this deck are incorporated in the artwork, so it isn't a consistently transformational deck. As a result it is arguably more functional than typical transformation decks, and well-suited to playing card games, while being attractive, amusing, and charming unlike a regular deck of playing cards.


The original version of this deck had black-and-white card backs picturing gnomes ice skating by moonlight, which is reproduced with the blue (Gnome back) deck, while the green (Frog back) deck gives an alternative vignette picturing frogs.

Ye Witches Fortune Telling Cards (1896)

The Ye Witches Fortune Cards deck dates from the following year, 1896.


Like the Hustling Joe deck, it is transformational in style, without maintaining this strictly, so it can be considered a partial transformational deck. But there are some cards in this deck that definitely classify as transformational, so it is a wonderful deck that showcases something of the creativity from this time period.


All the number cards feature unique illustrations, and the artwork has been chosen to suggest something about the meaning of those particular cards for divination. The original 19th century deck even came with an accompanying book that explained how to use the deck and interpret the cards. The court cards, however, are relatively standard, although the hair of these royal figures was filled in with solid black.

This deck also has historical value because it captures some of the period costumes from the time. For the most part the artwork is somewhat playful rather than macabre, and the cards that are designed to be transformational have real appeal.


The original Ye Witches Fortune Telling deck had one-way card backs with vibrant red and blue, illustrating a coven of witches, complete with a cauldron, and surrounded by bats and dragons. This artwork has been preserved in the red (Cauldron back) version of the reproduction deck, while the green (Broom back) features a simpler two-way design featuring twin witches on broomsticks.

Eclipse Comic Playing Cards (1876)

The Eclipse Comic deck dates back to 1876, and was the very first transformation deck printed in the United States by F.H. Lowere. A reprint is currently up for funding on Kickstarter here.


The number cards of this deck are truly transformational in style, with lots of creativity and humor. The courts feature a one-way design that takes full advantage of the playing card canvas, and depict caricatures involved in amusing scenes and activities. The absence of indices was typical of the era, since these were only popularized in the late 19th century.


These deck also shows evidence of its American influence by the presence of the Joker (depicted as a Jester), which had until this point never been included before in a transformation deck. The addition of the Joker lies in the popularity of Euchre in the mid 1850s, and it was originally added to the deck as a powerful trump card called the "best bower". Jokers first appeared in playing cards produced after this period in the United States, so its first-time appearance as a Jester in this US-produced transformation deck isn't surprising.


Many of the reproduction decks produced by Will Roya have been done in collaboration with Azured Ox. He's also the artist involved in this project, and he recreated the cards digitally using high resolution scans of the original deck, sourced from the extensive Albert Field playing card collection at Columbia University.

If you're really keen to get this first and original American transformation deck in your hands now already, you can get a published prototype (only 500 were produced) here. The crowdfunded versions will have have red backs or blue backs, while the prototype has a green backed design, similar to what is shown on the back of the tuck box.

Circus Reproduction Playing Cards (1896)

While not a transformation deck, the Circus deck deserves inclusion in this article since it hails from the same era as the transformation decks covered above. It was first printed in 1896, and Will Roya has produced a marvellous reproduction version. The tuck boxes have a vintage look, which is finished nicely with gold lettering.


The main attraction of this deck is how the traditional court cards have been replaced with lively and colourful circus characters. The advertising copy for the original deck described it as “The staid old Kings, Queens and Jacks have given way to various well-known ring masters, clowns and queens.”


But the number cards have also had the benefit of some extra flourishes, with elegant borders surrounding the pips. Two Jokers and two gaff cards fill up the deck to 56 cards, which is standard for a USPCC produced deck.


The peach deck has artwork featuring an equestrian on the card backs with four different circus animals in the corners, making it a one-way design; in contrast the blue deck has artwork featuring a lion tamer on the card backs with a horse in the corners and a monochromatic look.

Transformation Playing Cards Book

If you, like me, enjoy learning about transformation playing cards, then you might also want to consider picking up the Transformation Playing Cards Book by Albert Field. Published by US Games Systems, a manufacturer of playing cards themselves, this book documents the history of transformation playing cards, but does so in a novel and appropriate way: with pictures. So it's not so much a scientific or historical documentary on the subject, but a pictorial exhibition of some of the best transformation playing cards that have been produced.

The one down side of this book is that it is in black and white, and many transformation playing cards are best enjoyed in full colour. But on the positive side, it's a very large book (7.25” x 10.75”), and it has over 200 pages of goodness inside. It is also somewhat dated, because it was published in 1987, so it only covers the transformation decks published before this. But it is a very comprehensive collection, covering around 80 different decks, the majority from the 19th century. While more modern decks aren't included, it is a beautiful book to page through, admiring the different transformation playing cards that previous centuries have produced.

What Albert Field has done is let the artwork speak for itself. For each deck, he gives a very brief description of when it was made and by who, and then follows the main event for each: the cards themselves. Each and every single playing card from the transformation deck is pictured, so there's a ton of unique and creative artwork to enjoy, although the use of black and white means that the visual isn't as striking as the original colour versions of the card. But as you can imagine, you can spend a long time paging through this delightful book, admiring the artwork and creativity. Fans of transformation playing cards are sure to enjoy this immensely.



Will Roya has hit on a proven formula for producing playing cards that are popular with collectors, and these reproduction transformation decks are among the very best. He has been involved in the playing card industry for several years now, and has extensive experience both as a retailer and as a creator, with a proven track record for fulfilling his crowdfunded projects. These are the kinds of decks that will appeal to any collector of quality custom playing cards, and the novelty and creativity of these transformation cards is almost certain to make them a hit with whoever sees them. I'm a huge fan of transformation playing cards, and you don't have to be a collector like me to realize that these playing cards are something truly special!

It's also worth mentioning that all of these decks have been produced by the United States Playing Card Company. That means that will handle smoothly and consistently, and have been printed to last. With the reproduction decks, faithfulness to the original designs has been ensured with the help of a digital recreation process that aims to stick as closely as possible to the original artwork and designs, by scanning in artwork from the original decks, or using high quality images of the cards. Props to PlayingcardDecks for some fantastic decks that playing card enthusiasts around the world can appreciate and enjoy!

Want to learn more? You can find these decks on here:
- Vanity Fair deck (1885)
- Hustling Joe deck (1885)
- Ye Witches Fortune deck (1886)
- Eclipse Comic deck (1876) [Kickstarter]
- Eclipse Comic deck (1876) [Prototype]
- Circus deck (1896)
- Transformation Playing Cards Book (Albert Field)
The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Deck the Halls » » Review: High quality reproductions of classic 19th century transformation decks (0 Likes)
[ Top of Page ]
All content & postings Copyright © 2001-2020 Steve Brooks. All Rights Reserved.
This page was created in 0.35 seconds requiring 5 database queries.
The views and comments expressed on The Magic Café
are not necessarily those of The Magic Café, Steve Brooks, or Steve Brooks Magic.
> Privacy Statement <

ROTFL Billions and billions served! ROTFL