Monday, April 09, 2007

Playing Cards and the Fifth Suit of Eagles

suit of eagles
For a good 40 years now, complete game fanatic that I am, I've been wondering what the fifth suit of eagles looked like. Well, now at long last I know. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I know what the suit of eagles looked like.

See, back in the 1930s they briefly came out with a 65-card deck which included the usual spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds, plus a fifth green suit known as eagles. Back when I was a kid, grade school, early or mid 1960s, I ran across this fact in the glossary at the back of my Dad's dogeared copy of The Official Rules of Card Games: Hoyle Up-to-Date, 46th edition (1948).

A fifth green suit of eagles! I was galvanized. Already at that age I had awakened to the aweful platonic mystery that burns at the heart of all games. That there had once, however briefly and fleetingly, been a suit of eagles... to me, this came as a mystic revelation on par with news of a fifth element ranking alongside earth, air, fire, and water.

Over the years I kept an eye out for any further notice about this fifth suit of eagles. I'd run across mention of it every now and then, usually in some book about card games. Always the mention was terse and nondescript. What did the suit sign for the suit of eagles look like? Other than that it had been green, no description.

Around age 12 or 13, I sent a letter to the United States Playing Card Company in Cincinnati, asking if they had any five-suit decks with the suit of eagles. They wrote back to me that their stock from the 1930s was long since exhausted, and they didn't know where I could obtain a deck.

suit of eagles
I made a few attempts myself at designing a suit of eagles. The two cards on the left are from a complete 13-card suit of eagles I drew up, possibly in my junior high years, possibly earlier. All 13 cards, including some abysmally drawn face cards— suit signs were always more my forte. Note the simple and almost geometric green eagle suit sign.

I was very much into the idea at that age that suit signs, wherever they wafted out there in Platonic hyperspace, had to be iconic and at the same time archetypal in some deep, resonant sense. I assumed (as I still in some sense assume) that "deep" suit signs are real, real in some almost Platonic sense, and that our task is but to intuit them by seining and dredging deep within. (As you can tell, I have never been altogether brought over into the realm of deracinated Western modernity: there is an atavistic premodern streak in me a mile wide, and I have always been quite at home with it.)

Then some time into my high school years, early 1970s, I made another try at designing a green eagle suit sign. Note the card on the right, the seven of eagles with the swirling, curving abstract eagles. Much more of a piece with the curving, abstract design of clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds. My curving eagles looked like triskelions, only four-armed: three arms swirling counterclockwise and the fourth arm curving the opposite way, clockwise, to form head and wings and tail. I think I was onto something here.

(And if I remember correctly, this playing card— with swirling green eagle suit signs and blue clouds in the background— came to me originally in a dream.)

suit of eagles
And there matters stood. For decades. Wondering what the suit of eagles looked like, wondering but never knowing. Brief references, never any description. No description, not even in James Blish's science-fiction novel Jack of Eagles, an earlier and shorter version of which was entitled Let the Finder Beware. (Hence the name of my blog.) Even when I eventually got on the Internet, I searched and searched but came up empty: hundreds of brief references to the fifth suit of eagles, sounding most of them pretty much alike; but no pictures, no descriptions.

Until just the other day, when I stumbled across a picture on the BoardGameGeek site. Then that picture led on to several more, to pictures of old playing cards, 1930s vintage, with the green fifth suit of eagles. I was electrified! After 40 years, here right in front of me was the original green fifth suit of eagles! It seems a single user uploaded several pictures of the American green fifth suit of eagles, and the British blue fifth suit of crowns.

You can find a large, full-sized picture of the suit of eagles here, and all the assorted fifth-suit pictures here.

suit of eagles
I must confess, I never would've guessed what the suit of eagles looked like. I like the design, but it's more complex, not as iconic as I would've expected; and yet at the same time rather suit-sign abstract, in ways that only really sink in after you look at it a while.

And after 40 years and more, a longstanding burning Platonic mystery has been unveiled to me. Long have I dreamed of that fifth green suit of eagles; and now at long last my eyes have beheld it in its original form.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I remember how blissfully silent it felt to find the name of a vintage quilt name after looking for 30 years. Not that I have my own pattern-obsessions or anything ...

Monday, April 09, 2007 1:50:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Well, there is something peculiar about this focus on patterns, isn't there? As I've said before, it's almost like some abstract form of synaesthesia.

All I know is, if I'd also been listening to the radio, running the vacuum cleaner, and using a slide rule at that moment when I unearthed the suit of eagles... well, I don't think I could've stood it, that's all. It would've been purner like dying and going to heaven.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 8:01:00 AM  
Blogger Richmond said...

Wow! That is so very cool!!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 9:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going through my fathers estate, I found a box (two decks) of the original Eagle Deluxe Five-Suit Bridge Cards in very good condition. Found this site on the internet and wander what this set may be worth now.

Saturday, June 23, 2007 5:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to my mother and her friend who introduced me to the game of Eagles Bridge, and gave me two sets of cards, I now have eight sets of Eagles cards with two different designs as well as three sets of Blue Crowns (Royals). I formed a group of bridge players who play Eagles bridge twice a month. There are now 20 of us who know how to play. The cards can be found every so often on eBay for various prices depending on condition.

Saturday, July 28, 2007 11:41:00 PM  
Blogger Phantamos said...

Saturday, December 29, 2012 10:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Xeps said...

Paul, I think your triskelion/swastika-esque suit of eagles is actually /more/ "real" than the original(it is simple and has a defined balance of convex and concave regions that fits in perfectly with the regular suites.)I think that it would only get more "real" if it would only be consistently printed and filled in with green. Your quest to find this fifth element can only compared to someone who is ignorant of geometry discovering (or inventing) the fifth platonic solid. Thank you.

Saturday, December 29, 2012 11:30:00 PM  

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