History of the card tax
The church was always opposed to gaming with cards. It was believed that the use of cards lead to crime, dishonesty, drunkeness, fighting and other unsavoury behavior. Cards were viewed as evil and sinister. In 15th century England it was even forbidden to play cards except during the 12 days of Christmas.
A long time before we all started to watch the square black box in the corner of the room, even before they had electricity, playing cards was one of the most popular pastimes and I guess most houses would have a pack to bring out on a wet evening. James 1, who was in charge when the United Kingdom was formed in 1603, came up with the idea of raising revenue by making the card makers pay for a stamp which would be printed on the Ace of Spades showing that tax had been paid. In 1805 the rate of this card tax was half a crown (12.5p) which is about £3.75 per pack in today's money. The effect was to more than double the retail price of each pack of cards. Unsurprisingly, this led to a few card makers trying to find ways to evade paying the tax altogether and making a much higher profit as a result.
Tax avoidance or evasion ?
John Blacklin thought he had found a way around the law when in 1805 he began selling packs of cards which excluded the Ace. He sold these packs of 51 cards in great numbers ...... oh yes, he sold the Aces separately if you wanted one. He argued that he wasn't liable for the tax because he wasn't selling a complete pack of playing cards. Sadly, the jury weren't convinced and he was found guilty.
A case was heard at the Old Bailey on 21st October 1805 when John Harding was indicted for forging and counterfeiting the ace of spades on playing cards and selling them knowing them to be forged and counterfeited.
Harding was a respectable playing card maker and had two separate, properly licensed, shops. It seems that the authorities became suspicious because of the very small number of stamps he paid for compared to the size of the business he was running. A bit like the modern day tax inspectors looking to detect traders who aren't declaring all their cash income, they sent in some stooges to buy a quantity of playing cards from Harding to obtain the cards with the allegedly fraudulent stamp. They then raided his premises and found the copper plates which he had used to produce the forged stamps hidden under the ground ..... which was a bit of a giveaway.
In 1828, in order to defeat widespread evasion, the duty was reduced to one shilling and, rather than allow the card maker to print their own Aces, the aces and card wrappers were specially printed by a company called 'Perkins Bacon' on behalf of the Commissioners of Stamps. This ace was known as 'Old Frizzle' and had an even more intricate design which carried the maker's name. The Ace was held by Customs and only issued once duty had been paid by the card makers.
In 1862, the duty was reduced to three pence and was charged for the officially printed wrappers they had to be wrapped in rather than the Ace. This left the makers free to produce their own designs for the aces.