El dorado no. 49
Of all the incredible decks produced during the 19th Century, none glimmer quite as bright as EL Dorado Playing Cards made by The National Card Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. Named after the elusive Lost City of Gold, owning one of these decks in 1893 might have tricked you into thinking you had found a small part of it. With Gold Edges and heavy use of gold fleck on the back design, there was no other deck that boasted more gilded accents. Even with the theme of El Dorado, card players didn't need to fear the Spanish Conquistadors because this deck was, in fact, as American as you could get.
El Dorado No. ‘49 was first manufactured in the early 1890s and was received as one of Nationals most popular initial brands. This attractive deck was chock-full of mystery and intrigue and evoked the passions of some of the most incredible treasure hunts of all time. Considered an early “mash-up” deck, it contained both the exotic ideas of El Dorado and the imagery of America’s “not so distant” California gold rush in 1849.
Research and reporting by:
Jason McKinstryworld of paper empires
Empire no.97 back designs
The motifs used for later Empire back designs were less cryptic and directly depicted Ancient Roman themes. Three well-known backs were associated with the brand: Empress No. 973, Corinth No. 974 and Roman No. 975. As was typical, all designs were available in blue and red.
Empire No. 97 Back Designs, c1901-1930.
Original Empire no.97 (left) Empire no.13 (right)
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National Card Co.
The National Card Company began in an unusual way. Samuel Murray (President of NCC) was a former employee of The United States Playing Card Company and had been one of their first and best mechanical minds. After spending seven years helping the USPCC to get off the ground (1881-1888), surprisingly, when he was looking for a promotion, there was no room left at the company. Feeling slighted, Samuel left the company in 1888 and made it his mission to become their direct competitor.
By 1890 Murray had purchased and outfitted a factory in Indianapolis and began to make his own unique brands of playing cards. National Card Co. took the card-playing industry by storm, and like he set out to do, Murray became a thorn in the side of the US Playing Card Company. To quantify National’s rapid growth, by 1892, there were already approximately 315 employees working at their Indianapolis playing card factory.
NPC Wholesale Price List.
With brands like Apollo, Ramblers, Arrows and El Dorado, National quickly became almost as popular as the USPCC, that is before they bought them out. That's right, in 1893, with business booming, National sold to the USPCC, and the company was incorporated into the fold. That wasn't the end of Samuel Murray, however. He went with his new company back into the arms of his former employer, A.O. Russell and R.J. Morgan, where he was given that promotion he had so longed for.
National brands were treated with an amount of reverence by the USPCC, and for many years, they were produced and updated alongside the parent company's offerings. US and National brands were often advertised together and sold, side by side, in general stores and stationery shops around the country. By the turn of the century, this duality was at its height, and period advertising shows both entities front and center.
But the current setup wasn't to last because, by 1900, USPCC sold the Indianapolis factory and began producing National playing cards in-house. Most popular brands made it through the transition, including El Dorado, which continued to be produced until 1908. At that point, the USPC stopped advertising National individually and incorporated a few remaining brands into their roster, and with that, El Dorado was lost forever... Until now.
El Dorados were made between 1890 and 1909. And in that period, little changed fundamentally about the brand. Perhaps because the initial design was so well done, it was felt that there was little to improve. They were first released with striking metallic gold Clover Backs, but by 1898, they were offered in Turkish and Kaleidoscope backs that fit better with the USPCC’s Fashion Series. Although the later decks were beautiful, nothing could compare to the original “Good Luck” backs first created.
The use of gold accents was, of course, the main selling feature of El Dorados, and at that task, they succeeded in spades. Even the tuck box (patented in 1890) was seemingly covered in gold. The Ace of Spades featured patriotic American motifs with an eagle perched on a shield with light beams in the background piercing a halo of American gold coins. These 1849 gold coins also graced the terrific box art. The Joker included with El Dorado was the same as National’s Crescent brand and starred the “maiden on the moon” against the night sky with a flush hand of playing cards.
Even the name El Dorado was cleverly chosen. It immediately conjures up images of Gold which was the intended purpose. Of all the high-quality Gold Edges decks available by other manufacturers (and there were many), only El Dorado No. ‘49 could provide this unusual phenomenon through its namesake.
During their brief original years of independence, National Card Co. released multiple colours of the El Dorado brand. They were stunning and quite unlike anything else in the market. They came in a bold Turquoise, Pink, and Blue, and those bright tuck boxes with beautiful gold accents must have been fashionable because there are many excellent condition examples to find today.
El Dorado came as an impressive package. The “Superior” Gold Edged decks were also carefully sheathed in an elegant wrapper and sealed with a company stamp before joining those colorful boxes. The boxes were only ready for sale after being sealed with a US Tax Stamp.