The American Military Costumes deck from U.S. Games Systems forms a double bridge deck with its mate, European Military Costumes, which, for no good reason, I elected not to present here. The uniforms are all c. 1886, from both the national and state military organizations. The uniforms from the late 19th century are not generally well-known in the US, particularly because this was a period of undignified foreign wars which American history classes tend to gloss over. But I was surprised to see such similarity between the various American costumes and their better-known European counterparts.
The designs of many of the uniforms can be traced backwards to the American Civil War, and were still to be found all the way up to the First World War. Various regional touches can doubtless be seen in the state militia dress codes, only a few of which I think I may have caught. And while the series could easily have focused solely on the uniforms of the national armed services and still filled an entire deck, I'm glad they decided to take advantage of the variety of uniforms to be found at the state level as well.
The drawings themselves found their origin in an unlikely enough place. Next to the caption on each card can be found the words, "Illust'd Sweet Caporal." Sweet Caporal was a brand of cigarettes popular in the US around the turn of the century, one of whose distinguishing features was the inclusion in each pack of collectible "cigarette cards." They were most well known for their pin-up style drawings of women, immortalized by author Henry Miller in his biography, Books of My Life, while discussing his first trip to a burlesque show, at the tender age of fifteen:
From the minute the curtain rose I was trembling with excitement. Until then I had never seen a woman undressed in public. I had seen pictures of women in tights in childhood, thanks to Sweet Caporal cigarettes, in every packet of which there used to be a little playing card featuring one of the soubrettes of the day. But to see one of those creatures in life on the stage, in the full glare of the spotlight, no, that I had never dreamed of. (Miller, 1981)
But on occasion, Sweet Caporal was known to do a series or two about subjects fairly far afield from their normal fare. And among these was military uniforms, from both America and Europe. I've been unable, in my meager researches, to determine when these cards saw distribution, but it could well have been in the late 1880's, when they would have been current. And I have no idea if they've ever been published together as a single deck before now, though I somehow expect so.
The deck has fifty-four images on it, one for each card and the jokers as well. I didn't notice any grand pattern to the organization, either in source, rank or style - the ordering could easily have been entirely haphazard. I present four of them below, though each card in the deck is a unique and fascinating look at the style of the time, and would have made an equally good example as the ones shown.
The Joker (above right), by the way, is the "Chief Gunner's Mate, U.S.N. 1886." The word "Art." below means "Artillery;" "N.Y.S.M." is the New York State Militia; "R.I." is the state of Rhode Island; and Waltham is a town in Massachusetts, near Boston.
All images © the U.S. Games Systems, displayed here for commentary, analysis and appreciation only.
Two of Hearts
Three of Clubs
Private, Newport Art.,
King of Diamonds
Five of Spades
Major, Ancient & Honorable