First, I need to be forthcoming and let you know that despite my 1,000+ collection of tarot decks, the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot is my all-time favorite (not that I don’t like and use many others). I’ll talk about the reasons another time. Now I just want to offer up this tidbit of publishing history.
This deck, first published in December 1909 simply as “Tarot Cards,” was available more-or-less continually from 1910 until 1939 when Rider appears to have ceased publication. This may have been because of the WWII bombings when paper was scarce and the printing plates destroyed. French and Italian decks had never been easily available in England as such imports were heavily taxed. The Waite-Smith Tarot Cards were not officially republished until 1971 when the publisher/importer Waddington Playing Card Co Ltd. and U.S. Games, under a license from Rider & Co., jointly began publishing a version printed by A. G. Mueller in Switzerland.
I was always curious why such a popular deck was out-of-print for so long, until I came across this autobiography by one-time London bookseller Albert Meltzer called I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels (Oakland CA: AK Press, 1996) and online here. As Meltzer tells it:
One of the minor curiosities I found when bookselling [he owned a bookstore on Gray’s Inn Rd.] was that one was constantly asked for tarot cards. For years these had been illegal — the ‘devil’s bible’ — and imports were banned. Any pretext that it was ‘only a game’ was dismissed by Customs. Tarot readers lined up at Bow Street , to be fined with the prostitutes, palm readers and graphologists (the latter have since blossomed out as forensic scientists).
Then the post-war Labour Government abolished the Witchcraft Act in 1946 [the actual year was 1951]. It was a favour to the journalist Hannen Swaffer* who had campaigned in the mainstream press for the Labour Party for years but refused an offer of the Lords. He merely asked for political relief to be given to the spiritualists. They were banned under the Witchcraft Act, and it was such medieval nonsense one could not amend it so it was abolished and so incidentally dream interpreters, psychics, tarot readers and soothsayers were legalised. Thus emerged officially from the Dark Ages. . . .
It was in order, therefore, to import Tarot cards but they were taxed ‘as a game’. For years it had been insisted they were not a game. If they were religious appurtenances even of witchcraft, now legal, or at least not illegal, they could not incur tax. I tried fighting the Customs on this, but with no success. I could never afford to sue them, but tried to persuade the main importers, John Waddington, to do so. They, however, preferred paying tax and having it kept as a ‘game’. It is curious how this nonsense upset the police. The bookshop was actually raided to see if I had imported Tarot cards and not paid tax on them. The police were quite apologetic. When I explained about the Witchcraft Act they were not sure if I was being sarcastic or not. Neither was I.
So, from 1939 until 1951 (the year Pixie Smith died) it appears that fortune-telling cards were considered, in England, to be illegal under the Witchcraft Act, and no one was willing to take this issue to court. After 1951 and until the late sixties they were probably simply thought strange and old fashioned. The gap was filled for a while by Rolla Nordic who issued her own version of a Marseille tarot. Then, some old works on tarot were republished, and new works began to appear in the United States.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., University Books began publishing its own version of the deck in the early sixties (followed by Merrimack and Frankie Albano’s Tarot Productions), ceasing when U.S. Games started enforcing a copyright in 1971. Read my discussion of the 1969 Tarot Renaissance here.
*Slightly off-topic but to fill in some gaps in the quote above: In Great Britain, in 1951 the Fraudulent Mediums Act replaced the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which had increasingly been applied to Spiritualists and mediums. The last person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act was Helen Duncan who in 1943, during a séance in Portsmouth, channeled a young man who told the gathering, which included his mother, that his ship had been sunk. The mother contacted the War Office asking for details. An investigation was launched into Duncan’s activities prompted by this revelation of top-secret information during war time. Supposedly the authorities became concerned that the medium might make pronouncements about the D-Day plans. Helen Duncan was tried and convicted in 1944, serving nine months in prison. The journalist and ghost-hunter Harry Price had investigated Helen Duncan’s ectoplasmic mediumship years before, and he claimed to have proven her a fraud. The British Society of Paranormal Studies and Duncan’s granddaughter recently have been petitioning the government for a pardon.
As a result of his own interests in Spiritualism and spurred on by the conviction of Helen Duncan, the popular journalist Hannen Swaffer (who was influential in and for the Labour Party), asked for restrictions on Spiritualism to be lifted as a reward for his services. To do so, the Government had to abolish the medieval Witchcraft Act. Three years later Spiritualism was officially recognized as a religion.