In modern society, signage throughout the world is littered with easily recognisable symbols that represent clear purposes — the “☢” symbol represents radioactivity, and the “☣” symbol unequivocally represents biohazards, both without any need for context. However, there are some symbols that seem to have an ambiguous meaning with multiple interpretations. For example, the “♠” symbol – also known as the spade or pike — requires context to understand its meaning. Just how did this ubiquitous symbol from a pack of playing cards make its way into popular culture?
The notion of a playing card game with suits is said to have come about around the 14th century as a “Saracen’s game”. The Latin suits, which came to be the modern French suits, were based on a mixture of currencies (Cups and Coins), and weaponry which represented the nobility and the military (Clubs and Swords). The suit of swords then came to be represented in the German-speaking world during the 15th century as Shields, and in the French-speaking world as Pikes, also known as Spades. The modern symbol for the Spade, “♠”, came from the French iteration of the Sword suit, which represented the head of a pike.
This association with the older suit of Swords meant that the suit of Spades was also associated with nobility and military. This connection would later cement itself in 17th century Britain where, under the reign of James I, the Ace of Spades in a pack of playing cards was required to display the insignia of a member of a noble house, and later the logo of the manufacturer.
As the French suits cemented themselves into modern society as a pastime and industrialisation brought playing cards to working class bars, so too did the popularity and notoriety of the suits. In particular, the aforementioned Ace of Spades was unique — the only card which had a special print, not by choice but by law. It quickly became one of the more ‘iconic’ cards along with the face cards, and seemingly by random chance its association with the military resurged with practical use in the Second World War. Some American soldiers had their helmets marked with the spade, as playing cards had developed a reputation for bringing good luck. In particular, the Ace of Spades became extensively used during the Vietnam War in card form, where boxes of only the Ace of Spades were shipped to American soldiers to use as morale boosters. It is also theorised, and popularised by Coppola’s war epic Apocalypse Now, that the card was used as a taunt against the Vietnamese by leaving the card on a fallen Vietnamese soldier, giving birth to the notion that the Ace of Spades was the card of death.
Darker yet is the use of the Ace of Spades as an insult or slur. In the 20th century piece “The American Language” by H. L. Mencken, a ‘spade’ is considered a slur for African-American peoples, and eventually the slur “black as the ace of spades” became racist slang used to refer to peoples of darker complexions, as well as those who were deemed ‘unclean’ by society, such as swingers. There have been attempts to reclaim the use of the term akin to other slurs, such as the 1973 sculpture “Spade with Chains” by artist David Hammons.
On a more empowering note, the Spade has also been appropriated for more just purposes by the asexual movement. The shortening of the term “asexual” to “ace” is an intuitive contraction and has led to the adoption of the various suits of ace cards to represent varying strands of asexuality. The ace of hearts has become a symbol for romantic asexuality, while the ace of spades represents aromantic asexuality, a sardonic nod to the previously mentioned stereotype that swingers are lacking in romantic attraction.
Ultimately, the history of the spade is a complex and unique one. While other notable symbols such as the radioactive symbol were carefully designed in controlled laboratories to be contextless, the spade stems from a history of nobility, war, and racism that has embroiled it into a hotbed of contextual meaning.