The administration and difficulties of the New Spain card shop, a valuable business

At one point, the playing card tobacco shop became one of the main sources of income for the Hispanic Monarchy. Nevertheless, its administration came to be plagued by various problems, from gambling to the counterfeiting of playing cards. Get to know some of them through the documents of the AGN.

The administration and difficulties of the New Spain card shop, a valuable business
Playing cards, in dossier against gambling. Image and text: AGN

The card tobacco shop became one of the main sources of income for the Hispanic Monarchy. However, its administration came to be plagued by various problems, from gambling to the counterfeiting of playing cards. Learn about some of them through the AGN documents.

Among the sources of income that the Crown of Spain implemented in New Spain was the "estancos". These were products that could not be manufactured, distributed, and sold freely, their exploitation being reserved to a person or institution in exchange for a tax for the State, thus consolidating certain monopolies. However, these assets could be reclaimed by the Crown of Spain in the event of non-compliance by the privileged party or after the end of the lease period.

One of the many monopolies that came to be established in this new world was that concerning playing cards. These were used for the amusement of the people where bets were made. At first, there were attempts to prohibit them to avoid vice among the players. However, prohibitionist policies were not enough to extirpate card games. Faced with this situation, the Crown of Spain had no choice but to control their sale and distribution, which is why the first tobacconist in charge of the manufacture and sale of playing cards was established in New Spain in 1552.

With time, the value of the income from the card tobacco increased to the royal treasury. For example, in 1721, in exchange for a fixed annual rent of 45,000 pesos, the privileges of the card tobacco shop in New Spain and the districts of Nueva Galicia, Nueva Vizcaya, Guatemala, Campeche, and the Philippine Islands were granted to Don Isidro Rodriguez for nearly nine years. At the end of this lease in 1730, the estanco passed into the hands of Francisco Guilisasti, who had the privileges of production and sale of playing cards for ten years in exchange for an annual rent of 48,000 pesos.

To obtain the privileges of a playing card tobacconist, the lessee had to have the economic solvency to manufacture playing cards. That is to say, to have the tools, materials, instruments, and other elements for the correct elaboration of playing cards. The cards had to have certain characteristics of color, size, stamping, seal, and rubric, to avoid any type of forgery.

In exchange, the privileged person was guaranteed the exclusivity of this tobacconist for ten years in the cities, towns, villages, and places included in the jurisdiction of the leased tobacconist. In correspondence with this, no other person could carry out the manufacture of playing cards, nor introduce, distribute and sell other types of playing cards than those corresponding to the tobacconist's factory in each area. For this reason, sailors departing from Spain could not carry among their belongings playing cards from Castile, Seville, France, or elsewhere.

The tobacconist also prohibited that the cards manufactured by the lessee could be sold by anyone; since to be able to commercialize the decks officially, one had to have a license issued by the owner of the tobacconist. Otherwise, a fine of 300 pesos had to be paid. In case the offense was committed by a "vile person", the penalty was one hundred lashes and banishment, the latter punishment being subject to the judge's consideration.

One of the main problems that came to affect the playing card market was, without a doubt, the counterfeiting or piracy of playing cards. The crime was harshly punished by the viceroyalty authorities by establishing penalties for manufacturers, sellers, and buyers of counterfeit playing cards. The most severe penalty was for those who had the factory or molds for the elaboration of fake playing cards, who could be sentenced to death or, failing that, to banishment. On the other hand, the sellers and buyers of pirate playing cards were sentenced to 200 lashes and ten years in the galleys, plus the corresponding monetary sanctions.

Despite the severe penalties that fell on the counterfeiters of playing cards, there were some offenders. Such was the case of the clergyman Andrés de Chávez who in 1656 was arrested in the city of Puebla for carrying about 116 decks of false cards, being apprehended by the authorities while he was trying to sell one of the packages.

His ecclesiastical condition did not exempt him from punishment, since in the regulations of estancos it was established that no secular or regular ecclesiastical person could carry out the manufacture and sale of playing cards without permission of the lessee, being subject to the same penalties as civil offenders.

Chavez's case involved a process of ex-communication, which had been requested by the corresponding ecclesiastical authorities of Puebla. In this situation, Chavez escaped from the jail where he was being held, leaving the legal process inconclusive.

Another type of case related to card piracy was the clandestine gambling houses. These places used to buy pirate decks to carry out this turbulent business, which not only included betting with playing cards but also dice games, balls, and rods. Punishments for this type of crime ranged from 1,000 pesos to 200 lashes and 6 years in the galleys.

Nowadays, we can explore the details of the operation and social life around the estanco de naipes through the documents kept by the AGN. Thus, we can follow its nearly 300 years of life, weigh its important economic contribution to the coffers of the Spanish Crown, and at the same time witness its transformations with the collapse of the colonial system and the independence process. Can you imagine what other experiences are found among its files?