All about Uno
Aug 28, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I adore vintage board games. The fun illustrations, the quirky setup, and the retro references all make for an entertaining evening. But one of my most special vintage past-times is actually a card game. My grandpa (and high school math teacher) had an affinity for numbers and playing Uno was his favorite way to share this love with his grandkids. I realized recently that I don’t know much about the history of this classic card game, so join me as we learn all about Uno and be sure not to skip it!
You may imagine Uno was the brainchild of a mathematician, but in fact, the inventor Merle Robbins was a barber by trade. Cutting hair by day, but by night he was a family man and devoted dad. When he noticed that their nightly game of Crazy Eights would get a bit heated, Merle found inspiration. With his trusty deck of cards in tow, he created some Robbins family rules. These new instructions kept game night calm and added a new flair to the tradition. So what were these rules? A king made the game play reverse, a queen meant a player was skipped, and of course – aces were wild. The Robbins family soon was having so much fun, the whole neighborhood caught wind.
As more rounds were played, the family discovered that the youngest children who had felt left out during these get-togethers now were empowered as the instructions were engaging and easier for them to remember. Bolstered by the game’s popularity, Merle designed and printed a deck that was dedicated to his new brand of card game. Word of mouth continued to spread and Merle knew he was on to something special. The family then took a big leap of faith, selling their beloved home to invest in Uno. The good folks of Reading, Ohio soon were visiting Merle’s barbershop to purchase their own deck, but Merle set his sights even bigger. He and his wife, Marie, purchased a trailer and traveled America marketing and selling the game. Their initial clientele was the RV set and Uno proved a monumental hit. Soon the fast-paced card game became a staple at camp sites across the country. This door-to-door (or camper-to-camper) technique served the Robbins well. Upon their return, shops and stores across Ohio were jumping on the Uno bandwagon.
This buzz soon caught the attention of avid Uno player and investor, Bob Tezak, who purchased the rights and distributed Uno to the world. (Fun fact: Tezak paid about $100,000 for Uno in 1972 – a little over half a million dollars in today’s money!) It’s interesting because you may think this is the point in the story where a mathematician gets involved – but nope! Bob’s family owned a floral shop and funeral home. Yet, just like Merle, his talents were diverse. In fact, Tezak is responsible for the classic design we recognize today. If you thought Merle was a passionate marketer, Bob was his equal. Shortly after securing the rights, Uno was distributed as prizes in regional children’s tv shows and developed into a thriving mail-order business.
All of that hustle and bustle paid off because the spunky game caught the attention of WalMart’s founder and less than ten years later a deck of Uno cards could be found in nearly every American home, becoming the centerpiece of countless family gatherings. By the mid 1990s Uno joined the ranks of Mattel’s offerings and gave the international giant its first successful game launch! Despite all the Uno versions available today, the core values of Merle’s creation remain. Uno is a game that brings the entire family together and, for my family, became a way to bestow a legacy of numbers to a new generation. Uno was inducted to the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2018 – an honor that feels a bit overdue considering its birth date in the 1960s. Tell us about your favorite vintage card game & share your memories of Uno in the comments…