French stamps

1937 Paris International Exhibition

Playing cards

Shaving paraphernalia

My Jokers


The collecting bug

Robert P's Reflective Joker

I have a talent, if that's the right word, for finding stuff others have lost. I have found hundreds of pounds in coins and notes over the last 30 years. I have also found half a dozen purses in this time: dropped outside a post office, left in a supermarket trolley or misplaced on a barstool. I get a buzz from reuniting them, usually by scanning a crowd or by phoning a number on a business or gym-membership card, with their owner before they notice their loss, panic and start cancelling bank cards. Only once have I failed and had to hand the purse into the police.

And I have always had the urge to collect things - be it objects, pictures or information - and create some kind of order out of them.

When I was 13 I combined these two traits and collected playing cards that I found on the street on the way to school. When I saw my first card, I was attracted by the novelty of it. How strange to find a playing card in the street. Had it been placed between the spokes of a bicycle to create a clatter and then fallen off? A few days later, I found a second card, this time with a message written on it. Had it been discarded by a loved one who didn't like the message? In fact, there are hundreds of playing cards dropped on the world's streets every day. Don't take my word for it, check out this guy who has set up a website dedicated to their sightings or this flickr site that has a few too.

Six of heartsIt was when I found my third card that I felt a special tingle run through me. It was then that I realised that I was a collector and that I must find more. I set myself a mission to collect a full pack of 52 different cards. I didn't take long to realise that locally, I was a member of a small club, a club of one in fact. The downside to this, was that mine would be a lonely task. The upside was that there would be no competition, the field was clear!

For the first few months I took extra long ways home from school to increase the odds of finding a stray card. I developed the memory muscle needed for collecting, ensuring that finds weren't duplicated. I also set down collecting rules. Less than half a card didn't count and if a handful of cards was found then I was only allowed to keep one. Unfortunately this latter rule was more suited to games and rules for fair play. It was a mistake that would be frowned on by any serious collector, because opportunities should be seized whatever the circumstances.

Joker on the ceilingAfter initial successes it became more and more difficult to find new cards. With less finds I scaled down my efforts and my enthusiasm waned. When I finally called a halt to this particular collecting bug five years later I had 32 cards in my collection. When I see a card on the pavement today I smile and walk on by. It is a temptation I can resist but it does trigger flashbacks of some of the more odd locations that I have spotted cards. Check out this photo taken at Paris' Orly airport in 2001 - there was indeed a two of spades on the ceiling of this departure lounge!

A beautiful thing

Joker 2The unsuccessful attempt to gain a full pack had not been totally in vain. Along the way I developed a long-lasting passion for the 53rd and 54th cards in a deck. I had found the Joker and a new collecting focus. I went about finding more.

I see the Jokers as the most interesting cards in the deck. Jokers are allowed to be different from the rest of the pack. In fact they are usually the only cards of the 54 that have any character, the rest have a job to do, to depict the same four suits and pip cards, in as standard a way as possible. The Jokers - there are usually two but sometimes more - give the playing card manufacturers license to advertise and be creative.

Joker 1It is not easy collecting jokers. Again I found myself virtually alone in collecting them which limited the amount of possible exchanges. Proper playing card collectors frowned down on me. Occasionally, when trying to buy from collectors I would be told: "No. It would be like tearing the page out of a book." However, most non-collectors treated Jokers as the spare cards, the ones that replace missing or damaged cards and were willing to let them go.

That said, I was thrown out of London's only dedicated playing card and map shop when I asked if they had any Jokers. The owner reacted badly to my request. He said: "You people are thieves. You come and look at a pack and then you steal my Jokers because you don't want the whole set. Unless you intend to buy a whole pack, get out!"

Joker 6Well I did buy a whole pack on this occasion from Yasha when he had his shop in Islington. His reaction had alerted me to the fact that there were other Joker collectors around. I began to research more about the history of playing cards and card collecting. I learned from the curator of the Worshipful Company of makers of Playing Cards and met characters that specialised in round playing cards, antique Asian cards - all sorts. I then wrote a piece in 1996 based on my findings that was published as a full page article in the Independent on Sunday magazine.

Unsure beginning

The exact origin of Jokers has never been pinned down. This authorative source tries to be definite but there's too much guesswork involved. Does it originate from American players need for an extra trump card? Or does it have its origins in the Fool card of European Tarot sets?

I was always more interested in how the Jokers looked, their unusualness, their humour. I tried to match these qualities by pairing them with sympathetic or contrary images. I placed them in albums and made up photo collages with pictures from magazines. I was combining the urge to collect with my ambition to be an editor. Here was a cheap way to do both.

Postscript: These pages feature lots more jokers and here are some joker collectors and some of their collections.

Theakston 1 Theakston 2 Joker 1b Joker 5

Joker 3b Joker 4b Joker 3 Joker 2b