Samuel Hart and his playing cards are legendary in the history of American playing cards for both the sport and the pastime. Hart is credited with introducing many innovations and improvements that have become standard features of playing cards sold today throughout the world.
Beginning his career working as an apprentice for his uncle, Lewis I. Cohen, Hart got his start in the family stationer business in New York City. Cohen, a prodigy in his own right, was renowned in his field for being a master card maker.
Coming from a long line of stationers and booksellers, Hart became acquainted with the business of paper and stationery manufacture from an early age. Hart’s immediate family had been in the business since 1831.
His extended family also had similar business interests. They had stores and proprietorships all the way from Philadelphia to New York.
In 1844 Hart exited his uncle’s business. Having learned the trade sufficiently, he ventured out on his own. In Philadelphia he established his first store, and traded under the name “Samuel Hart & Co.” The store was located at 27 South Fourth Street.
By 1849 Hart began to manufacture his first playing cards, and quickly his business grew. From 1849 onward Hart established and maintained offices in New York City as well. During the 1850’s Hart introduced the playing card brands “Mogul” and “Steamboat.”
By 1858 Hart’s business had grown to the extent that he had a plant constructed at 416 South 13th Street. With his new plant, he was able to substantially increase his playing card production.
Hart also receives credit for introducing the Joker to playing card decks sometime on or around the 1860s. During the mid 19th century the game Euchre encountered widespread public popularity in the U.S. The game requires an extra trump card, or Best Bower, and Samuel Hart’s new Joker satisfied the need.
From his plant, Hart produced decks which enjoyed notable American popularity. Brands like “Hart’s Linen Eagle,” “Club House,” and “London Club Cards” found themselves in widespread circulation. Enter the Civil War, and troops from both the North and the South spent their idle time playing cards using Hart’s decks.
In 1871 Samuel Hart, along with Solomon Cohen, John Lawrence, and several other successful New York card makers unified their businesses, and formed the New York Consolidate Card Co. Thereafter, Samuel Hart & Co cased to operate independently.
During his 22 year span as an independent playing card manufacturer, Hart produced a vast array of decks and is credited for a number of important milestones. His decks were some of the first which featured satin finishes, rounded corners, and double-ends.
Though Hart wasn’t the first manufacturer to introduce these features, he was the first to mass produce and make them commercially available to the American public. This led to his cards being the first with all such features to enter widespread circulation.
Like many merchants and proprietors of his era, Samuel Hart had a number of metallic and hard rubber tokens struck as a means of advertising his products†. Samuel Hart issued these tokens for a period of about 10 years.
They were struck in multiple metals and compositions, including copper, brass, silvered brass, and various colors of hard rubber. The table below outlines the ten known Samuel Hart token varieties.
The following are examples of the different varieties. The first is cataloged as Miller PA-197A. Struck sometime between 1854-1857, the specimen is approximately MS-62 on a copper planchet. The edge is plain.
The second specimen, also struck in the same time period, is cataloged as Miller PA-197B. Instead of copper, this variety was struck in white metal. Aside from the planchet, the engraving work is the same as well as edge being plain. This example is likewise approximately MS-62 in grade.
These next specimens were struck later, estimated between the years 1858-1859. The below is cataloged as Miller PA-195. The planchet is smaller than the previous two tokens, and is comprised of silvered brass. In this particular example, the silvering covers approximately 85% of the brass planchet. It is estimated at AU-58 in grade.
The next specimen is cataloged as PA-196A. This variety was not silvered but was struck in brass. It is certified and slabbed by NGC as MS-63 in grade. The four white plastic clips that overhang the token is part of the slab. They are used to secure the token within the slab holder.
The next specimen is also Miller PA-196A. It is in Mint State grade. It possesses a more brighter patina and is approximately 30% bright.
The final two specimens were struck in hard rubber. Based on correspondence with numismatic author David Schenkman, the hard rubber varieties are extremely rare. Research on past sales and auctions of these rubber tokens confirms Schenkman’s assessment.
The first specimen is listed as Schenkman NY610-H10b and was struck on brown rubber composition. It is approximately VF-25 in grade (Choice Very Fine). It is estimated that it has a Fuld Rarity Rating of no less than R-8, and possibly even R-9. Three to four specimens are estimated to remain extant (survive.)
The second specimen was struck in gold rubber composition. Given a catalog number of Fuld NY630AGa-1h, the variety had once been under consideration for being classified as a Civil War token. Research shows, however, that it was likely distributed by Hart as a “poker chip” instead of private specie, and thus would not qualify by definition as a “Civil War Token.”
As with the above specimen, this example is likewise estimated to have a Fuld Rarity Rating of no less than R-8, with 3-4 estimated as remaining extant.
Samuel Hart died on June 2, 1885 in Philadelphia. He was 67 years old. His legacy remains alive today, every time a poker player checks, calls, and folds.
Notes and Sources
Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 Fourth Edition, Russell Rulau, Krause Publications, ©2004, pg.385
- Merchant Tokens of Hard Rubber and Similar Compositions, David Schenkman, Jade House Publications, ©1991, pg.1117
The Library of Congress Digital Archives
The New York Clipper Annual Containing Theatrical, Musical and Sporting Chronologies, The Frank Queen Publishing Company, 1893, pg.87
‘Uniform Trade List Circular: For the Benefit of Publishers, Booksellers, News Dealers, and Stationers,’ Volume 1, Howard Challen, 1866
The Literary World Volume 6, Osgood & Co., 1850
Correspondence with David Schenkman
Correspondence with Steve Hayden