I want to start off by saying that this is not a complete guide to Blue Seal playing cards or the entire history of them. This is my knowledge and the knowledge of my fellow card collectors and magicians that have helped me bring this information to you. With over a decade of card handling, and having used thousands of decks with dozens of different finishes and stocks, let me try to explain the mystery that is the Blue Seal.
A Long, Long Time Ago…
So, where to start? How ’bout at the beginning of what might be considered the first Blue Seal, the overall design of which is still used today. In the 1965, the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) decided to no longer use tax stamps to seal their cards, but instead used a ‘postage’-looking stamp to seal their decks. You might have seen some decks on eBay that have these seals with the bumpy edges, blue background, and a white spade. Sometime in the 80’s is when they progressed into the rounded square seal that is used today.
Some of you might be thinking “WTF? I thought Blue Seals where just a thing in the mid 2000’s that everyone used?”
Fun fact! The Blue Seal has been a part of USPCC cards for a good 70-80 years. But the modern day cards are what kids these days are after: the Blue Seal Tally’s or ARRCO’s (U.S. Reg.), or really any deck from ’95 and up. Not a lot of people nowadays care for the feel of cards from the ‘80s and back, so let’s just focus on the last 15 years, starting in the 2000s and the cards of choice being Bikes, Tally’s and ARRCO’s.
Let me be clear about this next bit: there have been literally hundreds of thousands of Blue Seal cards made since the year 2000. And because of that, those were the cards of choice by magicians and flourishers. Not because they were the new hotness, but because they were cheap and available. They are the modern day equivalent of Tahoe’s: a deck that was used and gaffed for magicians, by magicians in the ‘60s.
No one really thought that Tahoe’s would stop being produced back then… until they did. No one stockpiled cards, as you could get them anywhere. This is what happened to the Blue Seal line of cards.
Although, I would say that the mid 2000’s is when kids (the newer magicians and flourishers) really started to hoard cards (I know I did.) This was around the time custom playing cards started to really pick up, and a market was there for it. A newer mentality of “The amount of cards you have = how cool you are/sick of a collection you have” started to emerge, vs the older school of thought of “Just use your damn cards!”
So what do I say to the claim that Blue Seal cards are rare? I think I will call bullshit — or at least, some bullshit. Rarity implies that there are not a lot left. But when cards are made in that high of a quantity for that amount of time, there are going to be stockpiles of them in warehouses and stores all over the world. However, that doesn’t mean that they are available to the public to get, creating another kind of ‘rarity’: one that affects us all.
I personally think the real reason that they are ‘rare’/hard-to-find is because they have an artificial value to them now. You can sell a single deck of Blue Seal Tally’s for $20! If I had a stash of them and found out that they had value like that, I would sell them and trickle them out into the market. It’s a simple rule of economics: supply and demand.
Quality Over Quantity?
Let’s move on to the whole ‘Blue Seal quality’ part. Back before the USPCC moved to Erlanger, KY, and Blue Seal cards were the norm, we still complained about the quality at the time: the cut being off, rough edges, and misprints. It’s funny looking back at it, actually.
The ‘Last of the Blue Seals’ ended in the beginning of 2009, as the USPCC switched to using black-colored seals, a couple of months before they moved to Kentucky and switched to the new box that we all just love. ಠ_ಠ (Check out Bicycle 807 decks!)
Did something really happen to the quality when the USPCC switched to KY? YES. Holy sweet Jesus fuck did everything fall to shit. Try to find a 2009 Tally-Ho made in KY. Just try to find a sealed one and open it. It feels like cheap, disgusting, China-made cards. You would think they were knock-off Tally’s, they are that bad.
So what happened? From my knowledge, and the collective knowledge of other card enthusiasts, one of the main problems was new equipment. When the USPCC moved, the old printing presses and other machines were sold and not transferred to the new factory. With them being sold, they had a contract tied to the whole deal: that the old machines would never be used to print playing cards again.
In addition, another issue was the stock and finish that was used. The USPCC used to have a pretty decent stock, and I don’t know if suppliers got switched or if different trees were used for the pulp, but stock quality dropped once they moved. The card’s edges split easier during shuffles, they didn’t have durability to them, and they lacked that clean, snappy feel to them.
People say that Blue Seal cards feel thicker and last longer than the lower quality Black Seals, so I did what any curious person would do: measure that shit!
3 most commonly used USPCC decks:
Blue Seal Bikes: .28mm
Black Seal Bikes: .28mm
Blue Seal Bees: .29mm
Black Seal Bees: .29mm
Blue Seal Tally’s: .28mm
Black Seal Tally’s .28mm
And just for fun!: Old Stud’s: .27mm vs. Jerry’s Nugget: .27mm
I am told by the USPCC that all of their cards use the same stock, and that they are just “crushed” to a thinner version, depending on what deck they are printing. This might have been different back in the day, before I was born, where they had specifically different stocks for different decks, but as of now, this is how things are.
From these mass-produced decks, the thickness appears to be the same, but the quality of the stock could be different. There are a few decks that are thicker stock produced by the USPCC, but I find that most of these decks were custom ordered for a company, and not used on mass runs for the public, like Bikes. Examples of this thicker stock are the Richard Turner Gambler cards or the original Theory11 Guardian deck.
This leads me to the finish on the cards and the glue used to hold the front and back of a card together (Fun Fact: playing cards are made up of two layers. The glue that binds them gets stuck to the fibers of the paper and creates a third layer!)
According to the USPCC, they only offer two finishes: Embossed (little dimples in the card) and Smooth (No dimples, just… well… smooth.) You might be thinking “What about Linoid? or Cambric? or Air Cushion?!” A lot of the finishes are the same, just with different stocks. For example, Cambric is just Embossed finish on Bee stock (thickness.) Again, there may have been a time where different finishes really did exist, but my knowledge doesn’t reach that far, and as of now, there are only those two finishes offered by the USPCC… unless you’re some super secret special person, who is allowed to use top secret finishes and hoard all of the good decks for yourself!!!! …or not, that’s cool too.
There is also a clear sealing layer that is put on cards, to finish everything off before boxing them up. Between the stock thickness, finish, glue used, and sealing layer, all of these factors add to the final product and feel of a deck of cards. The materials and products used at the old OH factory probably weren’t the same used in the KY factory, thus changing the feel of our favorite cards (drastically!).
So, with all of this change, the USPCC got new presses, cutting machines, stock, and the lot when they moved to Erlanger, and they got ready to fire up the new facility and print quality playing cards! …hff …bahahahahaha! Yeah, right. The new machines weren’t calibrated. Like, not even close. This just adds to the whole “Black Seal cards are bad!” thing, and it was true! Like I said before: just find a Black Seal 2009 KY deck and open it to find out for yourself.
But is the myth true? That all Black Seals are bad? If you find 2009 cards with “Made in Cincinnati” on the side of the box with a Black Seal, it might be a ‘Transformer deck’ (Blue Seal in disguise!) or they could be complete garbage. They took the extra boxes from the old factory and put Kentucky cards in them to save on box costs — kind of a crapshoot, if you don’t know what to look for.
Telling It Like It Is
As far as I know, there is only one way to tell if a 2009 made, Cincinnati box, Black Seal is really a Transformer deck (without opening it), and that is if you look at the seal and its white border is transparent/see-through. This is an example of a Transformer Tally next to an old ARRCO, both of which were printed in Cincinnati, OH. You can see that the glue has eaten through all of the white on the ARRCO’s seal vs the Transformer Tally, that is only a little transparent on the seal. Over time the Transformer seal will become completely clear like the ARRCO.
Also known as a Clear Seal, the reason for this is that the glue has dissolved the white paper, making it transparent. As far as I know, only OH made decks have this clear seal anomaly. Do be warned that when hunting for cards, this isn’t a guaranteed/foolproof way to tell where the decks were made, but it might give you a heads up and a little insight.
Going on a Date
Another way of knowing is obviously to open the cards and handle them. A more definitive way to check where the cards were printed is to look at the code on the bottom of the Ace of Spades, and take note of the first letter that appears when reading left to right.
The first letter of the code corresponds to the year printed, in accordance with this index below:
(This index is from Lee Asher’s Article How To Date A Deck Of Playing Cards (USPC). I encourage all of you to read this very short, but very informative article on playing card dating, as it gives a few more details that I won’t rewrite here. Also, check out Cypress Film’s guide to tax stamps and an older Ace of Spades code chart.)
Also, on the Joker it will say where the deck was printed indefinitely. Note that some USPCC jokers do not say the location of where they were printed; the reason to me is unknown at this time. An example of where this might be useful: I know there are some OH boxes that will say ‘Erlanger, KY’ on the Joker, giving a true identifier of the manufactured location.
I would say that the USPCC is just now, in 2015, starting to get back on its feet. Companies like Theory11, Dan and Dave, and Ellusionist all have a working relationship with the USPCC as they give the card company a lot of business between the three of them, not counting ALL of the Kickstarter decks being funded each month. Even these big companies have had dud runs of playing cards, and also had instant classics made, since the USPCC moved. But, this massive demand to print all of these playing cards, from different companies and creators, has backlogged the USPCC and quality control is low, in order to speed through all of the orders and play catch up. I feel that this is the most pressing issue that the USPCC needs to overcome.
It really does feels like a crapshoot at this point in time, if you want to print your own deck from the USPCC and still demand the quality that they proclaim they can deliver. One production month the cards could come out amazing, and the next could be a total flop that clumps within three hours of use.
I do think we are getting out of the ‘dark ages’ now, and with companies like Legends PCC and Expert PCC that are pushing quality, the USPCC has no choice but to step up their game, as some of the USPCC’s bigger clients might drop them for the competition that has been slowly taking over as the playing card manufacturer of choice.
Note: This is going to be a fluid article; meaning that it will be updated with new information about Blue Seals and other related facts regarding these card’s history. If you have information to add to this article please contact me, Chris, through my website at http://www.chriscseverson.com or through Instagram.
Collector Playing Cards note: This article was originally published on a blog called Who Shuffles Like that. It has been republished here with the permission of Kevin Ho and Chris C. Severson. Thanks, guys!