Although playing cards in Europe date back to the 14th century, Samuel Hart printed the first joker in 1863.
Playing cards originated in China, spread across the continent to Egypt, and made it to Europe some time in the mid-14th century CE. Or so we think – as with most of the “low pursuits” its history is murky and incomplete. The card suits in China were just four coin denominations (handy if you’re gambling). By the time they got to Medieval Egypt, the suits had metamorphosed into coins, cups, swords, and polo clubs.
In Europe, the suits diverged again: in Germany, hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves; in France, hearts, clovers, tiles, and pikes. It was that French version that fits the modern set of hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades – but playing cards still didn’t have jokers. Surprisingly, the joker didn’t appear until 1863. When it did, it was designed specially for euchre.
(A side-note: the fool appeared in Tarot decks several hundred years earlier, but doesn’t seem to connect historically with the joker in playing cards.)
Euchre is a trick-taking game with trump cards. In a typical game of euchre there are two such trumps, called the right bower (the jack of the trump suit) and the left bower (the jack of the same colour as the trump suit). These are the most powerful cards in the game, literally “trumping” all others. But some time in the mid-19th century, players began using a blank card as a third trump – a supreme card that ruled all others.
Samuel Hart was an American manufacturer of playing cards. He was the first to print something on the formerly-blank card to indicate its status as a supreme trump: the imperial bower. And, in doing so, he effectively invented the joker.
(The next year he was also the first American to put little symbols of the suit and rank in the corner of his playing cards – a stylistic innovation that had a patent to its name. It seems like there was a little arms race between playing card manufacturers at the time.)