Holly's Rider-Waite Site

A Journey Through the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck

Updated 1/9/2010

An update; amazing, but true!

Celebrating 100 Years of Tarot Influence


Over the years I've managed to acquire five different versions of the 1st edition RWS (Rider [publisher], Waite [conceiver], Smith [artist]) Tarot deck. This page is dedicated to both Arthur Edward Waite who conceived the deck, and to Pamela Colman Smith who designed and executed the artwork (both of whom will be subsequently referred to as Arth and Pixie). Arth and Pixie embarked on the journey to create this deck in early 1909. By the end of that year it first appeared in a boxed set with The Key to the Tarot (which did not become The Pictorial Key. . . until after 1910). It was subsequently reprinted an unknown number of times by Rider & Sons until at least 1931 (which I have a boxed set of Minor and Court cards with another book - The Key to the Tarot, which for some unknown reason ceased being Pictorial in that edition) with the same card backing. In 1916, LW deLaurence, exercising a rather blatant use of copyright infringement, produced this deck in the US under his name in three recolored versions (1916, 1960, 1980), along with Arth's book retitled The Key to the Tarot (also in three slightly different versions; actually four - that is subtitled Oracles Behind the Veil). Several other examples of this happened until 1971, when US Games Systems acquired the copyright. They have since produced this deck in many of its variations of size, etc.

So why the RWS versus some other deck obsession? Well, it was my first deck, and I spent years learning the ins and outs of it. And I still consider it one of the best decks for pictorial attractiveness and depth of meaning of the symbolism on the individual cards (even though I will confess that I use the Mary Hanson Roberts' recoloring in the Universal Waite deck more nowadays as other people find it more pleasing to the eye). The RWS is that now rare thing in Tarot decks - a complete, coherent, unified system of cards with a complexity of detail that has held my attention for years. Oh yeah, those pictorial, representational minor cards are a definite plus also. The RWS deck was the second deck to use illustrative pictures to show the meanings of the minor number cards, and nowadays that has become the norm. The Sola Busca deck did this earlier (late 15th c.), but the notion did not catch on then. There are a few instances where Pixie Smith may have borrowed from the Sola Busca deck, but overall, her illustrations are original. Other Tarock and playing card decks used representational illustrations on the pip cards, especially when they were 'theme' decks. The idea was 'out there', it just took Pixie and Arth to bring it to the Tarot deck in modern times. The RWS deck also is one of the most widely copied for its pictorial symbolism, i.e., in the IX of Wands someone is carrying a burden of wands - is there no other way to show this concept? How about those six swords in a boat? Or the party girls and their three cups? A careful comparison of many of the current decks shows the homage and debt that deck designers owe to Arth and Pixie. There are prettier decks. There are more complex decks. But the RWS has held my interest for many years. I learn new things about it all the time.

And now it's time for the personal bio stuff and history along with pictures and other goodies. [Bio} It's a long, dissembling personal ramble. Read it. It's good; it's confessional. Now, on to more relevant topics.

So far, I have pictured the Sun card from my early edition RWS decks. I have used the research and categories of Frank Jensen to distinguish the cards as to A, B, C, D. He has made the critical determinations of the differences in the printings of these cards. They appear in Manteia magazine (No. 14, 1995 and No. 15, 1995) and also in articles in the International Playing Card Association Journal. A copy of the Manteia Courier article is available here. Read it. It explains alot. I stand on the shoulders of giants here. Frank also used several other cards for distinguishing the printings. They will appear as I get them scanned and up and running on this page. [MainSunPage]

So where is the fifth deck in all this mess? NO MAJORS! But it may appear at a later time when I show the lovely books that came with the sets.

There is a major wrench in the works. Some of you might have watched that wicked eBay auction where Stuart Kaplan slugged it out with Lo Scarabeo for the rose & lilies deck. I sure watched. This item changes a bit of the previous timeline. Check [MainSunPage] for the new speculations.

A personal moment of triumph! After years of searching and whining and otherwise puttering, I have finally acquired a 1911 Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Hooo-yah! No more Xerox copy. What's the big deal?? I have the 1910 version, a 1931 version, the deLaurence hijacked versions (all 4 of them), and several subsequent versions, including my falling-apart PB 1971 version that was my very first Tarot book. Public domain. It's a wonderful thing. One part of the Holy Grail has been achieved. I also found a Pamela B. It is a bit marked up, but hell, it is closer than nothing at all. What would be truly nice would be to find a Pamela B in the original box. I know several people who have the deck, but no one has the original box. Where this version fits in the timeline is still an open question. I also got the January, 1910 Occult Review issue that contains the article by Arth about his new deck with an interesting Sun card picture. Yes, I've been busy and foolish. Usually I am just foolish.


Now this is a recent obsession. It's very possible to look at a RWS deck and say "who cares, snore" until you turn the card over. Then a surprise may appear. The card backs are the fast way to determine what edition of the deck you have. I have one deck listed which I acquired and have no idea as to the identity or history (help here is appreciated). Several others have very tentative dates. No one knows the history (or it hasn't been gathered in one place, which is what this site is all about). I'm coming to the realization that card backs are the behind-the-scenes story of Tarot. We stare at them a goodly amount of time in a reading. They are more important than just a replacement for a blank back design.

What makes a good card back? How are they chosen or designed? How much bother goes into them? Let's celebrate a side of the cards that we all see but don't think about much. I know I am annoyed with a card back that shows a definite upright and inverted form well before I've turned the card over (such as the University Books version). It's like peeking. I show several of the direct RWS influenced cards. Several other decks, such as the Aquarian, also show variation in the card backs as to printings or editions. Know your stuff.


This phrase clattered in my mind. Here's the various Fools from various printings, editions, clones, whathaveyou. Subtle differences that only the neurotic will notice or care about. Hence their appearance on my site.


Other places to go to learn more about the RWS deck. I've remained reasonably specific to the RWS topic. Chasing links is the quick road to hell in Tarot-land. As always, this will grow with time and new information.


Pamela Colman Smith produced other things besides a mighty nifty Tarot deck. I've managed recently to acquire a few of those works. Widdicombe Fair, The Green Bed, and The Golden Vanity. Another part of the Holy Grail has been found. Move beyond the small photos Stuart Kaplan showed you in Vol. 3 of Encyclopedia of Tarot. See how she interprets these songs.


A place for all those decks that are just "too close for comfort" to the RWS. Some nifty data on a few decks and their timelines. Some snarky comments on other decks.


I found an early advertisement for the RWS deck and book. I also have a 1938 catalog from the de Laurence company with advertisements for the hijacked deck and book. That particular topic kind of grew into a complex dog and pony show.


Okay, a popular question lately. Someone else did a bunch of the legwork on this, and the link is here. I've got some other stuff too, along with the usual opinions.




 [CardBacks] [Bio]

This site is provided purely for informational purposes. All rights reserved. Copyright 2001, Holly Voley