Playing cards have been around since ancient times, and today the English deck contains 52 cards, separated into four suits divided by rank. The jack of spades is the lowest of the face cards, or court cards, in the spades suit. Although it used to be called the knave, this was changed in 1864. In some regions, the face cards in a deck of playing cards represented historical characters, and the jack of spades represented a hero from French literature.
It is commonly believed that playing cards originated in India. Sometime around the 14th century, they began to appear in Europe. These decks consisted of ten numerical spot cards and three court cards, which had images of royal figures. Today the court cards are typically called face cards.
The four original suits in a deck of cards were swords, sticks, coins, and cups. Later, these suits were changed to spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs. The name spades originated for the Italian word for sword, which is spada. The jack of spades also used to be called the jack of knaves.
A knave was a servant to a royal individual. The knave, queen, and king cards were represented by an image of a person, along with a Kn, a Q, and a K,respectively. Some people believed it was difficult to distinguish the Kn, which represented the knave, from the K, which represented the king.
These abbreviations were later changed. Samuel Hart, a paper manufacturer, began to manufacture and sell playing cards around 1849. Hart was the man that began to manufacture playing cards with rounded edges. He also made his cards with double-ends, making it easier for a card player to see what was in his hand without flipping the cards around. Some say that Hart is also responsible for the addition of the jokers, or wild cards, in the modern deck of cards.
Samuel Hart also changed the knaves in his decks to jacks. It is believed that the modern day jacks are based on face cards from a card game that was popular during the English Renaissance, called All Fours. The term jack was considered to be a vulgar or impolite term at the time, but the letter J was easier to distinguish from the K used to represent a king. It was at this time the knave of spades became the jack of spades.
In a French deck of playing cards, the face cards are typically believed to represent particular people. The knave or jack of spades, for instance, is believed to represent Ogier the Dane. This was a fictitious hero in a series of epic poems once popular in French literature. Some believe this character is based on a man who helped rebuild a monastery in Cologne, France in the 700s.