The collection spans 50 countries and four centuries and touches on subjects ranging from beer marketing to 19th-century Portuguese politics.
Columbia University has a collection of playing cards that is among the world's largest, a trove of 6,356 decks that the Ivy League institution painstakingly catalogued this spring after they were donated to the school by a collector.
Ranging from simple woodblock prints from 1550s Austria to a 1963 American pack with admiring caricatures of the Kennedy family, the collection isn't just a novelty, but a rich, if offbeat, resource for research. Scholars say cards can be useful records of social history, depicting how cultural touchstones, political figures and historical events were seen in their times.
“They're kind of wacky and different for us,” said Columbia librarian Jane Rodgers Siegel, but “once you actually start looking at the cards, they're just fascinating.”
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The collection is a significant addition to playing-card repositories held by libraries, museums and other institutions around the world. London's Guildhall Library has a similar-sized collection, curator John Fisher said.
Columbia's collection was the result of a bequest from a man almost as colorful as his cards: schoolteacher, author, mountain climber, nudist and Salvador Dali archivist Albert Field, who died in 2003 at age 86.
For Field, cards were part of a ravenous appetite for collecting that extended to transit tokens and bus transfers, said Frank Hunter, a longtime friend .
Field's interests ranged from hiking — he traversed a good deal of the Appalachian Trail, and in the nude, no less — to mystery novels, Hunter said. Field believed he had solved a legendary literary whodunit, Charles Dickens' unfinished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and was trying to get his analysis published when he died.