University Archives

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World’s Most Important and Valuable Deck of Cards?! 1720 South Sea Bubble Playing Cards

The Original Stock Market Crash! The Finest known set of Thomas Bowles most attractive 1720 South Sea Bubble playing cards, perhaps the last in private hands. A stupendous rarity considered among 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 bear satirical portrayals of the speculators involved in various commercial projects started during the South Sea Bubble of 1720, providing a unique contemporary record of the feverish atmosphere of the time, as well as the fashions of dress. Probably the finest known set. Slight flaws to 6 of clubs could be easily restored. No title card as usual. Usual duty stamp on ace of spades. Missing Title card as almost all examples are.

The cards were printed from copper plates, with the red suit symbols being applied later by stencil. 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 of the feverish activities of traders in stock, by depicting in cartoon form a series of domestic situations which, although doubtless somewhat exaggerated, represented the atmosphere of the time. The South Sea Bubble is often described as England’s first great financial crash. The spectacular rise and fall of the South Sea Company has been chronicled in detail elsewhere (see in particular Cowles, The Great Swindle; Carswell, The South Sea Bubble; and Balen, A Very English Deceit), but a brief summary will be given here for context. The South Sea Company was first founded in 1711 to trade with Spanish colonies in the Americas. Despite never having any particular success in this area, the company came to prominence in 1719 with a scheme to deal with the spiralling 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 (see Cowles, The Great Swindle, chapter three and Balen, A Very English Deceit, chapter six for more detail) 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 eighteenth-century, which allowed investors to buy far more stock than they could actually afford. In 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 clamoured for investment. Some schemes were genuine, others fraudulent, others just ridiculous, yet the public, caught in the spirit of the time, invested. These companies became known as ‘bubble companies’ by sceptics, 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. 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 middling and upper classes (Clayton, ‘Book illustration’, p. 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 your 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 eighteenth-century. Political propaganda cards appeared in late seventeenth-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, p. 2 and Hoffmann, The Playing Card, p. 45). But the Bubble Cards are an example of a new trend in political and social commentary in the early eighteenth-century – satire. The eighteenth-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, p. 1). Initially, many satires were imported from the Netherlands (Atherton, Political Prints, p. 1). Thomas 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, p. 61; France suffered its own financial scandal around the same time – for more see Cowles, The Great Swindle). 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 Honour is flogged (Wynn Jones, The Cartoon History of Britain, p. 18). Hogarth went on to produce other satires of the political aftermath of the Bubble, as did many others; one of the more famous is entitled The Skreen and accuses Robert Walpole of shielding those guilty of shady dealings during the Bubble (Wynn Jones, The Cartoon History, p. 18). The authorship of The Skreen is disputed – it is generally believed the attribution to Picart is false, and was made in order to evade prosecution (see record at http://prints.worc.ox.ac.uk/scripts/fullrecord.asp?location=XVI%3A+388)

The auction records show three full sets of Bowles other variety, less attractive, and with busy use of speech balloons, all printed in black and with red suits colored afterwards. Coincidentally this set the 9 of Diamonds was mistakenly printed black and colored by hand afterwards. One of these sets in comparable condition brought nearly $40,000 in 2012. At Sotheby’s another set sold in 2012 for over $52000, yet 10 cards were mounted. At this same auction the only other complete set of our cards fetched over $65,000 yet 13 cards were mounted. At auction, for our variety we only find one other listing of a badly incomplete set with condition problems. Institutionally we can only find one set at Oxford and it is mounted.



 

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