Bicycle Cards: At Uncle Sam’s command

Card magic is one of the most successful disciplines and with more fans in illusionism world. And it is not coincidence, since cards are, indeed, an almost universal identifier element; a small representation of idle entertainment, alone or accompanied, which is present in all cultures and in an absolutely transversal way: men and women, the young and the elder, the rich and the poor, monarchists and republicans… all them play. Moreover, it is also quite usual that each country has an emblematic brand, pioneer in its manufacture and which becomes a reference and synonym by antonomasia. In Spain we find the famous VITORIA cards, by Heraclio Fournier. Now, when we talk about the USA, the only and unmistakable ones are Bicycle cards.

Fabricación de cartas en la actualidad

Bicycle cards brand was created as early as 1855 under the endorsement of the US Printing Company, later renamed as the US Playing Cards Company (USPCC) in 1894. Its decks, which received this name due to the fact that their first editions had a velocipede drawn, quickly became popular throughout the United States, and with the turn of the century they would become practically another icon of the American way of life. What makes them extraordinary, however, is not this part of the story, nope, but its close relationship with the war efforts of the US military. Cards have always been a good soldiers’ ally when it comes to making the long waits in the trenches more bearable and encouraging camaraderie, but the Bicycle would take them to a whole new level…

Soldados rusos durante un descanso, 1942

During the Great War USPCC had already produced economic series of cards so that combatants scattered across the battlefields of all Europe could easily acquire them. However, it would be during World War II that Bicycle would fully enter as a weapon, since the allied intelligence services would use them to help prisoners of war (POW) to escape from Nazi captivity. How? Well, with a great deal of inventiveness: special decks with seemingly normal cards but which, in contact with water, took off their two sheets of cardboard to reveal the fragment of a print. Thus, by collecting all cards an escape map was obtained for the prisoners who managed to flee away or the pilots who had fallen in enemy territory. Cards were distributed by the Red Cross inside their Christmas packages –among other stuff– for the prisoners of war, and did not raise any suspicion among the German guards. Bicycle cards helped 32 prisoners escape from the Colditz castle fortress, and led to more than 300 documented attempts to escape. The total number of decks that were manufactured is not known, but the only one currently preserved is in the International Museum of Espionage in Washington.

Sorpresa, sorpresa… ¡Evasión a la carta!