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ItemID: #112004
Cost: $47,000.00

South Sea Bubble Playing Cards

Thomas Bowles


BOWLES, Thomas (publisher). South Sea Bubble Playing Cards. [London: Thomas Bowles, 1720]. Full deck of 52 original playing cards. Housed in a plastic case. $47,000.

Complete vintage deck of 52 playing cards satirizing the infamous South Sea Bubble, published by Thomas Bowles at the height of the investing mania. This set—especially complete and in such excellent condition—is extraordinarily rare, considered one of the most valuable decks of cards in the world.

The South Sea Bubble Playing Cards were first published in London by Thomas Bowles in 1720. The cards – bearing satirical portrayals of the speculators involved in various commercial projects started during the South Sea Bubble of 1720 – were printed from copper plates, with the spades and clubs printed in black, the diamonds and hearts printed in red. The court cards contain interesting miniature versions of the standard full-length figures used on playing cards at the time. The backs are plain. The cards provide a unique contemporary record by depicting in cartoon form a series of both legitimate and bogus joint-stock companies set up between 1719 and 1720 to attract investors. The various insurances and other schemes to which British investors would fall prey include: Whale Fishery; Bastard Children; Drying Malt by the Air; Manuring of Land; Raddish Oil; Pensilvania Company; Settling Collonies in Accadia North America; Bahama Islands; Greenland Trade; Office for cureing the Grand Pox or Clap; Bleeching of Hair; Irish Sail Cloth, among many others.

"The South Sea Bubble is often described as England's first great financial crash… The South Sea Company was founded in 1711 to trade with Spanish colonies in the Americas. The company came to prominence in 1719 with a scheme to deal with the spiraling national debt, which had been worsened by decades of war. Under the direction of John Blunt, one of the company's directors who became the driving force behind the Bubble, the South Sea Company proposed to take ownership of the national debt and convert it to South Sea stock, in which the public would be able to buy shares. The economics behind Blunt's proposal were both complex and fantastical… and the proposal faced a rocky passage through parliament, but with a liberal amount of bribery, it passed.

"Blunt's plans depended on an ever-increasing share price to generate profit and he worked tirelessly to inflate the value of South Sea stock. His plans worked and in the summer of 1720 South Sea mania gripped Britain. Everyone with any money to spare invested heavily in South Sea and the ballooning share prices made it seem as though there was endless money to be made. Stock also began to be sold on credit, a fairly novel concept in the early 18th century, which allowed investors to buy far more stock than they could actually afford. In the wake of the apparent success of the South Sea Company, numerous other ventures popped up to take advantage of the mania for investing. Schemes ranging from insurance, to land improvement, to extracting silver from lead, all clamored for investment. Some schemes were genuine, others fraudulent, others just ridiculous, yet the public, caught up in the spirit of the time, invested. These companies became known as 'bubble companies' by skeptics, a term which proved all too apt.

"In autumn 1720, the bubble burst. Ironically, the crash was in part brought about by John Blunt himself, who persuaded the government to clamp down on other bubble companies to reduce competition for South Sea stock. Confidence in the stock market faltered and over the course of a couple of months, South Sea stock prices, along with many others, plummeted. The effects of the crash were disastrous, for individuals as well as the economy and government.

"Thomas Bowles' Bubble Cards were issued at the height of the Bubble, when endless schemes were trying to persuade investors to part with their money. Each card bears an image and verse satirizing a bubble company. The cards are functional as playing cards, with a full set of suits and numbers. At three shillings and sixpence, they were priced at the expensive end of mid-range prints and would likely have been purchased by the middle and upper classes (Clayton, Book Illustration, 235). As well as the satire on the packaging, South Sea itself has a card, the knight of clubs, with the verse: 'Come all ye Spendthrift Prodigals that hold/ Free Land and want to turn the Same to Gold;/ We'll Buy you all, provided you'll agree/ To Drown your Purchase Money in the South Sea.'

"The concept of political playing cards was not entirely new in the early 18th century. Political propaganda cards appeared in late 17th-century England, primarily in opposition to the Catholic Church. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, the 1688 revolution, and 'Popish Plots' were all themes of playing cards that were printed at this time (Whiting, A Handful of History, 2; Hoffmann, The Playing Card, 45). But the Bubble Cards are an example of a new trend in political and social commentary in the early 18th century: satire. The 18th century was the heyday of the satirical print and the South Sea Bubble helped to spur the development of British satire (Atherton, Political Prints in the Age of Hogarth, 1). Initially, many satires were imported from the Netherlands (Atherton, 1). Bowles, the printer of the Bubble Cards, purchased and sold The Great Mirror of Folly in 1720, a Dutch book of satirical prints of the financial crises enveloping Britain and the continent at the time (Hallett, The Spectacle of Difference, 61). But in the wake of the Bubble, local talent began to blossom. William Hogarth produced his first political satire following the Bubble, in 1721. Simply entitled The South Sea Scheme, the image shows the directors of the South Sea Company taking the subscribers for a ride on a wheel of fortune, while the devil dismembers Fortune, Honesty is broken on a wheel, and Honor is flogged (Wynn Jones, The Cartoon History of Britain, 18)" (Treasures of Worcester College, Oxford, online exhibit posted July 29, 2016—the cards featured were all mounted on four folio leaves, one for each suit).

"The Bubble Cards appear in 1721, quite different from the Dutch series. There is a miniature playing card in the upper left-hand corner of each card, while most of the card is given to the illustration. These satirize the South Sea Bubble scheme… Below each picture is a quatrain of doggerel verse. These were sold by Carington Bowles, No. 69 in Saint Paul's Church Yard, London" (Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards, 197). Without title card as almost all examples known. Usual duty stamp on ace of spades. Nine of diamonds mistakenly printed in black and colored red by hand.

Slight flaws to 6 of clubs only. Probably the finest known set. Very rare and desirable.

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