This is one of those rare confluences of art and culture that can only come from genius meeting good timing. The people at University Books, Inc. were visionaries, and they picked up the ball so conveniently dropped a few decades earlier and made America’s first true tarot deck. But they did so much more. No one previously had thought to include full color images in the instruction book that came with a pack of tarot cards, as the cost of such a thing seemed ridiculous. That didn’t stop our friends at UB, and they printed, sold out, and reprinted and sold out again, before they finally changed from color plates to grayscale in their instruction books (their version of Rider’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot). Then they printed again and still sold decks and books.
Just the part in our story where University Books, Inc. seems unstoppable something mysterious happens and University Books disappears into the Bermuda Triangle (a popular conspiracy location in the 1960’s). The official address of University Books, Inc. before they moved to New Hyde Park is 101 West 31 St., New York 1, N.Y. Note the one digit city code (a precursor to the modern zip code). This address appears on cards included with some decks whose boxes were already stamped with their New Hyde Park address. This could well get confusing very quickly, so here is a handy timeline of essential events to help:
- Gertrude Moakley pens an article in 1959 that is used as the introduction for the (early in) 1960 republication of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by University Books, inc. This article is reprinted in this version even decades later.
- In 1960, the company known as University Books, inc., publishes their version of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, replete with full color images (who needs a deck, right?) along with their freshly minted tarot deck. From their catalog we can tell they were a successful publishing company who specialized in metaphysical subjects and “new age” thought. They published what they loved and it showed by their careful selection of books they felt everyone should read. This first book came with a brochure extolling the virtues of the tarot, and the deck (sold separately) was available in a maroon slipcase. While the box was stamped in gold with the New Hyde Park address, the first printing included vanity and advertisement cards that had their old address in New York City.
- University Books, Inc. invents the LWB! At some point later (still in New Hyde Park) University Books, Inc., switched to a tuck box with a printed pink interior, and then a blank interior. Whether they invented the LWB before or after they switched from pink interior to plain is still under investigation, but this puts the LWB a full 7 years before Frankie Albano blatantly stole it and according to the Aeclectic Tarot forum Kaplan (USGS) reprinted that version, complete with the exact same typesetting, and typographical errors. I will provide photographic evidence of this and you can decide for yourself what you believe. By all accounts they produced decks and books in New Hyde Park under the name University Books for almost a decade.
- This is where it gets wonky: University Books decks are then printed by Carol Publishing and Citadel Press (in Seacacus, New Jersey), who is a division of Lyle Stuart Inc. (a major publisher of the time). They may even be still be printed by UB (in N.H.P.) at this point. We have evidence of decks that pronounce both Citadel Press and UB as publishers of the same p0hysical deck of cards, so UB may have officially sold or transitioned to Citadel Press. Whatever the case may be the cards are also published and printed by Merrimack Publishing and later B. Shackman through at least 2011.
- In 1972 Causeway Books prints the exact images from UB’s PKtT (in full color) in their version of the PKtT. At this point University Books has been sold(?) or transitioned(?) to Lyle Stuart, their tarot book has been reprinted by Causeway, and their deck is being printed by no less than four different companies. Surely they are spreading their seed upon the fertile ground to create forests of new daisies in the spring.
Okay, so where does this all lead us? Back to New York City, where Merrimack’s address was listed as the same address as University books, Inc. Perhaps there was a divorce, or a breakup in the partnership, or a parting of ways where the printing plates were used by various people. But over time the quality of UB’s decks declined, even as others took over publishing. I will continue to unravel this Scooby Doo mystery, but in the meantime you may enjoy comparing the various University Books, Inc.’s decks to their legacy. Truly, this was an iconic company founded by visionaries. We could use more of these clear-sited visionaries in the tarot world today.