House of Cards

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 31, 2021


When I was small — meaning, in the single digits — my two older sisters and I had tremendous fun building card houses.

There are two basic construction methods: Arches and flats. An arch is made by leaning two cards towards one another so that their top edges line up. If two arches are made side by side using four cards, then a fifth card can be placed along the top edges of the arches, providing a platform. Onto that, a third pair can be placed. And there you have it: The basic pyramidal building unit. Not a proper four-sided tomb, to be sure! But close enough.

Depending on the the number of packs of cards one has, the supporting base of arches can be extended. The longer the base, the greater the height of the finished structure. Needless to say, each successive layer requires ever more care in placement. Even though the weight of the cards is well-distributed by their shape and stiffness, the only “glue” holding the pyramid together is gravity. One moment of inattention and... POOF! The whole thing comes tumbling down.

The flats have a less classic profile, but are considerably more versatile. Starting with four cards, one can get them to lean together as two facing pairs — two inside, two out — forming the walls of a simple shack. Onto these four walls, one can place another two cards, forming a flat roof. And that’s it. This unit can extended with very little effort to form a vast, low-slung colony. Arches can be built on top of it. Or else, an arch can be contained within four walls and a roof, to go straight up, in a pagoda.

Our parents were bridge players so there were always multiple packs of “old” cards at home. My sisters and I built towering, fragile edifices, requiring patience and time, all for the pleasure of the glorious blow-down. During this period, I came upon a photograph of children building a card house using SPECIALISED CARDS. They were in the backdrop of an advertisement in some magazine. It may have been Life and the ad may have been for carpets.

The sight of those cards fascinated me. They were similar to standard playing cards except that they had slots cut into the sides. Instead of depending on gravity, these cards could be slotted together. Better still, instead of numbers and suits, they had eye-catching visuals. The one I remember from the ad was a crab. I didn’t expect to get something just because I’d seen a picture of it. But the image stayed with me and eventually got logged in the Registry of Fulfillable Wishes. Because lo! All these many years later, I got myself a set of the cards!

Designed in the ’50s by Charles and Ray Eames, they’re considered a classic children’s toy. The set is called “House of Cards”. There are several variations, with many charming visuals. Amongst which, yes: A crab.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on January 31, 2021
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