Uncovering [Childless] Women’s History: Pamela Colman Smith

When I was in college, I started to read Tarot cards. I found them fascinating and rich with history, archetypes, and symbolism. I eventually collected Tarot decks, at one time owning about 15. However, every Tarot reader, regardless of their love for other artwork, understands the importance of a single deck known popularly as the Rider-Waite tarot.

Except, the name for the Rider-Waite tarot doesn’t tell the whole story.

The artist who created the iconic images on the world’s first mass-market tarot deck was actually Pamela Colman Smith, a woman and an artist whose name was practically erased from history. Pamela was a biracial woman born in London in 1878 and raised by artists.

She was the first popular tarot designer to create individual drawings for each of the suit cards. Previously, like a traditional deck of playing cards, they just had the number and the symbol on each one. Game changer.

After the death of her mother, Pamela joined her father in a touring group traveling to the United States. For a brief period, she had a great life. She attended college for art in New York, but didn’t graduate. She went on to illustrate manuscripts for some pretty important people, including Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. She even started her own magazine.

No one knows much about her personal life. There is some speculation that she was a lesbian, but it's impossible to determine the facts. What we do know is that Pamela never married, and she never had any children.

Her greatest legacy was yet to be, an outcome of her decision to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1901. The British occult society also boasted the membership of Alastair Crowley. It was here that she met Arthur Edward Waite, a man with an idea for a tarot deck.

Not only did Pamela illustrate the cards; she revolutionized them, creating the modern tarot that most readers and enthusiasts know today. Pamela’s approach to reading tarot was also different than most of her peers. She viewed each card as a story.

For her, when the cards were read all together, paying attention to all of the details in the drawings, the symbols could be woven to create a complete narrative. Today, many people read cards this way and most of the introductory “learn to read” tarot books teach this method.

After all of this, Pamela barely received a payment for the work she did on the cards. She never received a single royalty for sales. Mr. Waite, on the other hand, was celebrated as an occult leader and lived a comfortable life.

In 1918, Pamela faded into obscurity and no one knew much about her life until she died, penniless, in 1951.

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