The elite of Solothurn society gathered at tables like this one for card game evenings. This table belonged to the Glutz family, and the candlesticks belonged to the Greder-von Stäffis family. The playing cards and token boxes made of leather-covered cardboard are part of a Tarock set in book form dating from 1778.
The elite of Solothurn society gathered at tables like this one for card game evenings. This table belonged to the Glutz family, and the candlesticks belonged to the Greder-von Stäffis family. The playing cards and token boxes made of leather-covered cardboard are part of a Tarock set in book form dating from 1778. Museum Blumenstein

Solothurn, the cardmaking capital

In the 18th century, Solothurn was an important centre of playing card production. Throughout the Swiss Confederation almost everyone played with cards made in Solothurn, and the card designs produced there were also popular “beyond” the border.

Andreas Affolter

Andreas Affolter

Director of the Museum und Begegnungszentrum Schloss Waldegg.

When Barbara Tschan died in Solothurn on 1 August 1771, she left her heirs not only thousands of finished decks of all kinds, but also all the tools needed to produce the playing cards: 118 wooden printing blocks, brushes, paintbrushes, polishing stones, stencil screens, scissors and pressing machines. Known as “Kartenbabi”, Barbara Tschan was one of Solothurn’s most successful playing card makers. After the death of her husband, a notorious drunkard, Tschan took the family cardmaking workshop in Löwengasse to a new level of renown. People throughout half of the Confederation and beyond played with Tschan’s cards. Her products were sold in Biel, Brugg, Bern, Basel and Rapperswil, Lucerne, Lenzburg, Zurich and Neuchâtel. The trade fair in Zurzach was a particularly important sales outlet for Tschan’s playing cards. Through their sale there, the Solothurn playing cards found their way to buyers beyond the borders of the Old Confederation. It was only in Solothurn itself that her products were unavailable. The successful businesswoman had appeared before the town’s council and agreed to leave the local market to her competitors, Franz Joseph Graf and Joseph Stelli – quietly confident that she would in any case sell her cards mainly to “foreign places”.
A Knave of Hearts featuring the Fribourg pattern, signed by Joseph Stelli.
A Knave of Hearts featuring the Fribourg pattern, signed by Joseph Stelli. The card is one of just a handful of French playing cards that can be attributed to a Solothurn cardmaker. Private collection Walter Haas
Tschan, Stelli and Graf are just three examples of the thriving playing card production industry in Solothurn. In the 18th century the little town on the Aare developed into one of the old Swiss Confederation’s main centres for the production of playing cards, alongside Mümliswil, Lausanne, Fribourg, Neuchâtel and Geneva. There is evidence that at least a dozen cardmakers were operating in Solothurn during this period. The first cardmaker we specifically know of in Solothurn is Franz Joseph Heri of Biberist. A trained printer, Heri probably started making playing cards out of sheer necessity. After the Solothurn council had withdrawn his official printing jobs, he had to find another way to make ends meet. Heri transferred his activity to another field where he could put his skills with paper and printing to good use: he started making playing cards. The first known tarot game (known as Tarock in German) that was created in the Confederation in the 18th century was made by Heri. The set is dated 1718 and is now in the collection of the Swiss National Museum.
Franz Joseph Heri’s signature on the Two of Coins from his 1718 Tarock set. This is the first Tarock set made in Switzerland that we know of.
Franz Joseph Heri’s signature on the Two of Coins from his 1718 Tarock set. This is the first Tarock set made in Switzerland that we know of. Swiss National Museum
Trump VII "LE CHARIOR" with Heri's initials "FH" in the shield on the front of the carriage.
Trump VII "LE CHARIOR" with Heri's initials "FH" in the shield on the front of the carriage. The quality of Heri's cards is in no way inferior to their contemporary models from France. Swiss National Museum
A number of other card sets produced in Solothurn have survived, including examples made by Joseph Stelli, Urs Moser and Conrad Iseli. Often, it can be seen from the card images that the models were passed on from one cardmaker to another. The whole house often went to a new cardmaker along with the tools. For instance, Franz Heri sold his house with attached workshop at Schaalgasse 17 to the “respectable and humble” cardmaker Urs Moser from Biberist, whose widow, Barbara Moser, carried on the workshop after his death. After Widow Moser also died, the property and tools passed to her assistant, Joseph Stelli, who continued to produce cards until his own death in 1790.
View of a cardmaking workshop. The numbered figures describe the individual work materials and steps in more detail.
View of a cardmaking workshop. The numbered figures describe the individual work materials and steps in more detail. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Thanks to a detailed article and a table of pictures in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, we have a good idea of what the inside of a cardmaker’s workshop must have looked like. To make playing cards, the cardmakers first needed several different types of paper; they glued the papers together to form cards and then pressed them flat (Fig. 7). The glue, consisting of flour and starch, was boiled up in a large pot (Fig. 9). After pressing, the sheets were dried and smoothed, and then the card images were printed onto them using wooden models. If the card sheets were printed, they could be painted. The paint was applied using stencils that were placed over the sheets (Fig. 1 and 2). A back was glued to the now coloured front and then the finished sheet of cardboard was smoothed out again. To do this, the cardmakers heated the sheet of cards, laid it on a marble slab, wiped it over with dry soap, and polished it with a polishing stone (Fig. 3). Finally, the cardboard sheets were cut with scissors to the size of the individual cards (Fig. 4), then sorted, put together into sets (Fig. 6) and packaged up.
In their Encylopédie of 1763, Diderot and d’Alembert described the work of a playing card maker in precise detail.
In their Encylopédie of 1763, Diderot and d’Alembert described the work of a playing card maker in precise detail. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
The attractively packaged cards were then put out for sale. There was huge demand for the products from Solothurn, as card games were very popular in the 18th century. No social gathering was complete without a game of Tarock, Médiateur, Comète or Pharaon. More than a few players tried their luck using playing cards from Solothurn.

Baroque. Age of Contrasts

16.09.2022 15.01.2023 / National Museum Zurich
As a cultural epoch, the Baroque was a time of contrasts: opulence and innovation on the one hand, death and crises on the other. The exhibition presents beautiful objects from Baroque architecture, garden culture, fashion and art, focusing on the historical context of these items in order to illuminate this creative epoch in all its glorious ambiguity.

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