Calling all ex-hippies and former flower children -- remember that Tarot deck you carried around and hauled out to read at parties (or in the privacy of your own room)? Well, you probably have Stuart Kaplan, W'55, to thank for that. And he has you to thank as well, for purchasing it.
In 1968, while in Europe on business, Kaplan visited the Nuremberg Toy Fair, in hopes of finding something new for his children. Instead, he found something old for himself. Kaplan purchased an antique Tarot deck, the 1JJ, published in Switzerland by Mueller & Cie for a couple of centuries. Intrigued by the beauty of the cards, he brought the deck home, had it reproduced, and sold 100 copies to Brentano's, the New York-based bookstore chain. Within a year he had sold 200,000, and knew he was on to something.
Clearly the timing was right. The Age of Aquarius had dawned, and Tarot -- a deck of 78 cards with origins in medieval Italy, used chiefly for game-playing and divination -- was suddenly in vogue, as one of a number of exploratory tools and techniques, including transcendental meditation and the I Ching, for those seeking self-discovery or alternative advice.
Following his graduation from Wharton, Kaplan had been working on Wall Street, managing several manufacturing and mining companies for Standard Industries, Inc. The Nuremberg Tarot find changed his life. He soon founded U.S. Games Systems, of which he is still chairman of the board. In 1970, the company began producing the Rider-Waite Tarot, a deck that, since then, has sold more than six million copies worldwide. Created by Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, two members of the British mystical society Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the deck was originally published in 1909 by William Rider and Son, London. Under the rubric of U.S. Games, it has become synonymous with Tarot itself.
By 1978, Kaplan had convinced Standard Industries to purchase U.S. Games Systems, Inc., which by then was producing a modest line of Tarot decks and other related products. The company currently publishes and distributes more than 600 playing card decks, games, and books, and has been the recipient of prizes ranging from the Parents' Choice Gold Award to Mensa's Best Mind Games.
Also in 1978, Kaplan published the first volume of The Encyclopedia of Tarot, a book he had written as a result of his in-depth research into and study of the cards. Subsequent volumes came out in 1986 and 1990. By the late 1970s, Kaplan had begun collecting the cards as a hobby. Although he has "never been interested in the occult aspect of Tarot," Kaplan explains, he remains deeply intrigued by "the extraordinary beauty of the art."
Kaplan's collecting interests extend far beyond the Tarot, however, such that currently the Stuart and Marilyn R. Kaplan Playing Card Collection contains more than 700 playing card decks; a number of single rare cards; 1,600 card games, both antique and modern; and over 3,000 books on the history of cards and card-playing. It also includes card-playing accouterments, such as sterling silver card holders made by Tiffany and Gorham and trump indicators of various styles. One of these is a much-prized German-made version of Mickey Mouse dating from the 1930s, which Marilyn Kaplan secretly purchased for her husband after he thought he had lost out to another collector during a bout of the flu. (A trump indicator, for the uninitiated, is a device popular a century ago which was used to display the chosen trump suit that is significant in certain card games.)
Among Kaplan's favorite items in their extensive collection is a series of boxes, most made of animal bone but some of straw, that were hand-crafted by French sailors captured by the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Created to hold dominoes or handmade playing cards, these boxes frequently feature peak-shaped or domed sliding lids adorned with miniature watercolor paintings under glass; some specimens were intricately incised with detailed rosettes, medallions, and suit marks. The straw boxes, more delicate in nature, were made from split straw that prisoners dyed and plaited into elegant designs. Other exotic elements of the Kaplans' collection include a rare set of Apache Indian cards on rawhide, attributed to Geronimo and dating from the 1890s, and a set of mid-nineteenth-century cards from India, hand-painted and lacquered on ivory, which were used to play a bridgelike game, Mughal Ganjifa.
Although many of the Kaplans' finest finds are European in origin, the collection also includes American playing cards from the Civil War era featuring Union generals, as well as the parlor games Dr. Busby, Happy Families, and Old Maid, which enjoyed popularity on both shores, albeit in other variations. Authors, a card game created by a group of New England ladies (and possibly a gentleman) in 1861, became one of the most played and beloved games of childhood, as well as one of the most educational. The game has gone through many editions -- and publishers. "We have 220 different versions of Authors, from the year 1861 to the present," Kaplan says.
From a "desire to keep in print a legacy from our past" and make a "modest contribution to American literacy," as Kaplan explains, U.S. Games Systems bought the right to Authors from its most recent publisher, Parker Brothers, to become the sole publisher of the cards since 1987. The company has expanded the game into a series of decks that include American Women Authors, Children's Authors, Baseball Legends, Notable Black Women in History, and Composers, among others.
As a graduate of Wharton, Kaplan also appreciates the significance of two other elements of his collection: advertising cards -- which promoted everything from CocaCola to Dexter "Twin Tub" washing machines -- and the provocative whiskey and tobacco insert cards, designed to encourage consumers to purchase more products in order to complete their deck. When asked about his education, which includes a year studying French language and civilization at the Sorbonne, Kaplan says that "I credit my financial success to my Wharton education, which taught me a lot. I certainly owe my early training to the experience ... at Wharton because it opened my eyes to all the different facets of running a business -- and that's why you go to Wharton."
So with all this collecting, does Kaplan actually play cards? He does. "I play two games -- bridge and Wizard." The latter is published by U.S. Games, which bills it as "the ultimate game of trump." (Keep those trump indicators handy.) Kaplan calls it "a fabulous card game that is doing really well throughout the country." It was also included in Games magazine's top 100 games of 1995. Kaplan confesses that his favorite Tarot card is the Fool, in correspondence with his birthday, April 1. One suspects that he identifies with the Wizard, as well.
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