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Playing cards have a long international history, begining in China in the Ninth Century AD, but a relatively short history in New Zealand. Whangarei Museum houses an early set of New Zealand made cards donated by G. Moss in 1990. The set has a standard 52 cards with recognisable ‘courts’ (the decorated face) illustrated in multi-coloured enamel with rounded corners. On reverse is a beautiful red and pink floral design with native birds tui and kereru. This detailed design helped to hide any wear that might help competitors identify certain cards. By comparing it to other Willis sets our pack can be dated to around 1900 to 1910.


Early 20th century NZ playing cards made by A.D. Willis, Whanganui (Whangarei Museum 1990.29.5)



This iconic pack of cards was produced by self made Whanganui printer and business man Archibald Dudingston Willis. His firm A. D. Willis Ltd. published many works of national importance, including the Hawkes Bay Herald and the 1890 ‘New Zealand Illustrated’ which was the second major book of coloured lithographic prints to be printed in New Zealand. Growing up in London, England, Willis worked for printing firm Eyre and Spottiswoode. Willis’s father had died soon after his son’s birth and his mother died when he was a teenager. So at 15 years old, without parents, Willis took his trade skills to New Zealand in 1857. Before starting his printing and publishing business Willis tried a short stint of gold digging in Otago but quickly returned to his real calling and worked for several newspapers around the country and eventually ended up managing the ‘Wanganui Herald’ with John Ballance. A couple of years later, Willis ventured on his dream of founding his own publishing firm, opening his stationary, book selling, printing and publishing firm A. D. Willis in Whanganui in 1872. In addition to his career, Willis also contributed to local and national politics as a member of the Whanganui Borough Council, the Chairman of the Harbour Board and a Member in the House of Representatives. A. D. Willis appears to have started manufacturing playing cards in the 1880s and launched by copying court designs from the New York Consolidated Card Company. Such copying was a common practice of the time. During this time he was the only manufacturer of playing cards in the Southern Hemisphere. Our card set has a distinctively New Zealand style with a Maori warrior decorating the Joker card and a stylised cultural design with central Maori male face with moko (face tattoo) on the packet.


Sadly, Willis became ill while travelling in 1908 and later died. His wife Mary survived him until 1926, but the company continued operations. A printed advertisement in the Alexander Turnbull Library lists the games for which Willis branded cards were produced. Some of these games are now unfamiliar to younger generations- Pit, Midgets, Quittit, 500s, and even fortune telling. In the 1920s the A. D. Willis company manufactured a specific set of playing cards for fortune telling, advertised by a front cover featuring an older woman reading the fortune of a younger woman. This set had a key for reading the standard cards; 3 of Hearts meant a kiss, 8 of Clubs confusion, and 3 of Spades tears. The faces of A. D. Willis’ ‘court’ became more refined over time although remained in the black, red, yellow and blue colourway. The company started to produce a two colour version (black and red) in the early twentieth century. Competition in printing playing cards in New Zealand was small in the early days. John Dickinson and Strong & Ready both started in the 1920s. The Willis firm was successful in many markets and published labels, booklets, posters, political cards, and postcard series. They were known as Willis Print Ltd. in the 1940s. In 1949 the Willis company was sold to Weeks Ltd., but their court designs continued to be printed in the 1960s by United Empire Box Co. A further company, Kiwi Packaging, took over the rights from 1989 to 1993. It is amazing how many stories can be tethered by a little item such as a pack of playing cards. This Willis pack was significant for its time as the first brand of cards made in New Zealand, and of importance due to the entrepreneurial man who it is named after. I wonder how many of these little packets the foundations of New Zealand themed playing cards, reside in homes today.


Georgia Kerby

Exhibitions Curator

24 June 2020