Updated: Sep 8
The Rider-Waite Tarot deck with artwork by Pamela Coleman Smith is the most widely used and easily recognized Tarot deck in the world. This deck has the distinction of being the first one to use meaningful pictures on the Ace thru 10 cards in each suit instead of geometric designs of the suit symbols as did the Tarot of Marseilles which preceded it and was the deck standard for over 400 years. US Games obtained the copyright and published it in 1971 for the first time. Though it was originally published in 1909 by Rider Publishing and had subsequent editions, which are a rare find for today's Tarot Deck Collector searching through online auctions.
Sir Arthur Edward Waite collaborated with the British artist Pamela Coleman Smith to create a deck to illustrate his book; The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
Waite and Smith were both members of the Society for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at the beginning of the 20th Century and as an Occultist, Pixie (her nickname) drew designs for the cards with Hermetic secrets encoded in the symbolism as directed by Arthur Edward Waite. She died in 1951 without much money or any fame. She never experienced in her lifetime the effect her artwork would eventually have on people around the world. To honor Ms. Smith's long ignored contribution her many fans now call this deck The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot or RWS Tarot for short.
Over the years, the deck has gone thru several incarnations as other artists have tried to improve on it. The Albano-Waite was published in 1968 and Frankie Albano used oddly vibrant colors with Pixie's drawings.
In the 1990's came the Universal Waite which used Pixie's drawings recolored in a more pastel tone by Sally Hanson Roberts. Pictured below are comparisons of 4 High Priestess cards and 3 of these are from pocket editions including the AGMuller version, the Universal Waite and the Centennial Edition in a Tin which uses the Sepia toned color scheme thought to be what Pamela Coleman Smith's choice was for publication in 1909, though it was not used then.
One of the most recent variations is the round 1909 Tarot Original published by Llewellyn in 2022. But these drawings are recreations of Pixie's original artwork done by an Italian Artist and don't have her sigil on them. US Games is the current copyright holder, not Llewellyn, so they can't use her original drawings without permission and a big fee to US Games.
The Universal Waite and Smith-Waite Centennial use Pamela Coleman Smith's original drawings. All 78 original RWS cards have Pixie's personal signature sigil, which is created from her initials PCS, and is located in the bottom righthand corner of each card. The sigil signature is also how you'll know you have an authentic RWS deck and not a recreation or one of the dozens of clone decks that just copy her artwork.
The Centennial edition was created and named Smith-Waite to give her the credit she never got from Publishers while alive. Her sigil graces the backs of the Centennial edition along with a 5-petaled white rose which is an important Occult symbol for the Golden Dawn. To honor Pixie, this deck contains two additional cards that display her artwork as a Children's Book Illustrator as well as an example of her original artwork that is not a Tarot card on the cover of the Tin.
RWS is the deck I use for my Tarot Basics coursework. Once you are familiar with the RWS images, you'll be able to work with all the clone decks as well. The artwork may differ from deck to deck, but the metaphysical meanings for all 78 cards never changes.