Tarot Across the Centuries – Tori Conway

Tarot cards go as far back as the 15th century, perhaps even farther than that.  The earliest known deck to have complete illustrations is the Sola-Busca deck from the 1490s (Gittlen).


(Unknown, 1490)

Tarot back then was used as a trick game and the designs of the cards before then were basic and straightforward, with no elaborate illustrations like the ones we may be used to.  It wasn’t until 1781 that Antoine Court de Gébelin connected the use of tarot with the occult (Gittlen).  At that time the most well-known deck was the Tarot de Marseille made using a woodcut by Nicolas Conver, a French engraver (Topolsky).


(Nicolas Conver, 1760)

Most tarot decks to this point were made in Italy or France.  The first English deck  wasn’t made until 1909, commissioned by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith (Gittlen). Waite had seen the Sola-Busca deck on a visit to the British museum and had been inspired to create his own.  Not only was this the first mass produced English deck, but Waite wanted it to be primarily used for divination, having Smith make the illustrations full of meaning, the look being very reminiscent of the arts and crafts aesthetic (Gittlen).


(Arthur Edward Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, 1909)

First published in England, it was then sold in the United States by U.S. Games Systems Inc, making it the go-to deck for western culture (Gittlen).  Other versions were made here and there, most notably the semi-art deco styled Thoth deck By Frieda Harris, but the real upswing in deck designs didn’t happen until 1968. At this point Frankie Albano reprinted the original Waite-Smith cards in a recoloured version using almost psychedelic hues (Smith).  This inspired numerous reprints and spin-offs, making tarot decks something to be designed and collected.


(Frieda Harris, 1940)

Today there are hundreds of different designs using a variety of ways to get across the meaning of each card.  Most cards still contain an illustration with the name and number of the card incorporated into the design.  The 2016 Dreslyn deck by Kati Forner is a stark contrast to the original Waite-Smith deck or even the Tarot de Marseille’s woodcut design.  Commissioned for an L.A. fashion designer, Forner’s deck relies on simple shapes and lines to portray the cards deeper meanings.  A prime example would be the death card. In Waite-Smith’s original deck, the card depicts an armored skeleton on horseback holding up a black flag adorned with a flower.  The word death is written underneath in a bold font, the number incorporated into the flag.


(Arthur Edward Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, 1909)

Forner, instead of using the typical illustrative symbolism used in previous card designs, simply printed the card entirely in black with the word death  written in a small white font at the bottom. A large contrast with the rest of the deck which are printed in white.


(Kati Forner, 2016)

Both of these cards clearly portray the theme of death despite the fact that each were designed 107 years apart.  Perhaps that is the impressive nature of tarot designs.  To be able to portray the same themes in numerous ways over hundreds of years, each very different from the other.




Gittlen, Ariela. “The Radical, 600 Year Evolution of Tarot Card Art.” 28 July 2017. Artsy. 15 January 2020. <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-radical-600-year-evolution-tarot-card-art>.

Smith, Sherryl E. “Tarot for the Masses, Mid-20th Century.” n.d. Tarot Heritage. 15 January 2020. <https://tarot-heritage.com/history-4/tarot-for-the-masses-mid-20th-century/>.

Topolsky, Laura June. “The Deck of Cards That MAde Tarot a Global Phenomenon.” 10 July 2015. Atlas Obscura. 15 January 2020. <https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-deck-of-cards-that-made-tarot-a-global-phenomenon>.


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