Actual Card Production


A job I had in a former life, working as a philatelic describer for an international auction house, has me a bit curious about the actual production of the tarot cards themselves, particularly the periods of the Marseille deck. Unfortunately, my memories from that life, all I learned about stamps, papers, printing, is basically gone, though I still have quite a penchant for laid papers, the parallel lines. (You should see early postage stamps...they are quite interesting indeed!) And, if truth be known, I started that job as a green horn, no experience.

That said, has anyone done any research on these cards, about how they were actually produced? Is there any information available on that? Though my primary interest is in trying to understand the cosmic forces behind the cards, I'd think knowing about their properties in the world of Assiah might prove instructive. I suspect, though, I will have to learn French to learn more about this aspect of the cards! ;)


Well, Gutenberg made his printing press in 1436, which is certainly old enough to have pressed out some cards on thicker paper. And the Chinese were doing block printing on paper LONG before that. The ability was there for a sort of 'mass production' for the upper classes, all that's needed is the thicker printing stock, which I'm sure the printers at the time were up to experimenting with. Not all their book covers were made from leather, they had to have some sort of experience with pasteboard.


It is in English and while you explore, "The Imagemakers" there are pictures. This was a link posted in an earlier Marseilles discussion and it is still a very good, active link. Because it is actually about French decks, I believe it is a good resource for your work.

I like to search on sometimes for keywords, to see if I can find old links that might be still active and if the topic was covered before. Sometimes old links do not work, so I did recheck this link before posting to you. It takes a bit of searching, but you can also use the search engine to research through online sites.

Encyclopedia of the Tarot, Volume II, by Stuart Kaplan, names some printers as well. So you will be able to check anything posted online with a good printed reference.

Good luck.

Mari Hoshizaki


That's a good site that I had been at a while ago, but lost the link. Thanks!

As for Google, yes, I am very familiar with it and in fact did use it for this topic and the best I came up with was an ebook about the history of cards from 1930. It looked interesting just for general reading (not Tarot) but wasn't about to spend $10 and be chained to my computer reading it.

Good keywords are essential in finding the good results, and those I obviously did not have today.

As for using the group search engine, I have to learn how to get it to search for precisely what I want. It behaves differently than the other searching methods I use online. I just need to spend some time with it, which I will do, so no need to post me instructions! lol.

Mercy Bowcups.


I am pretty certain that printing from woodblocks predates Gutenberg by at least a century. The technique was imported from the Far East, if I remember rightly.

What Gutenberg created was not the technology of printing itself, but rather, the concept of movable and reusable type that could be used to create different sorts of documents without having to create a separate woodcut for each page. I do not know what the earliest printed deck of cards is, or whether it is a tarot or not.

One of the reasons the French suits became predominant over the Mediterranean suits was that the French-suited pip cards could be produced by stencil, rather than requiring a separate woodcut for each image. All the French suited pips are is an outline blob of red or black ink.


Thanks for the information about the stencil cards. Do you know of examples of that type of production, something that might be in the Kaplan encyclopedias that you could reference? I have the readily available Nicholas Conver edition and it has a strong wood block look to me, though of course I could be wrong. I understand that stencils were used as color guides for cards that were hand-colored after printing, IF I understand what I'm seeing.

Here is a link to a picture of the Conver pearwood plate...

Click on the image of one of the plates to the right for an enlarged picture.

I'd like to figure out if any of the earlier decks were made from metal etched plates. Perhaps since the images were a bit on the crude side and lacked the intricate detail of say, a postage stamp, that etchings were not practical. That must be quite a time-consuming process, unless there is some process with wax and acid and all.

This shouldn't be too hard to uncover since one would think the same printing methods were used on tarot cards as on other printing projects of the day.



I bet that the people at the Camoin site would be quite happy to answer your questions.

If you like, I can help you translate a letter to them. I may have problems with some technical terms, but I'm sure there's a solution to that.


Thanks, Diana. I may want to do that. But first, I must decide exactly what it is that I want to know. I'd say mostly an overview of how cards are produced. I saw an image of an early print shop producing tarot cards. It might have been at the Camoin site. It looked like they were created in stages...cutting, coloring, etc. which makes sense.

It's hard to believe that with so much tarot activity, that more hadn't been written in literature about tarot cards. We'd have a much better notion of what people (at least those in the stories!) were doing with the cards. Victor Hugo was quite knowledgeable about occult themes, I understand. Perhaps if I read everything he ever wrote...

I think I must hone my search a bit and concentrate on printing rather than Tarot. OF course, Camoin is a gold-mind because it includes both. I must dust off my French books (one of these days) and see what has been written about early cards. Focusing on the Marseille deck is good because there is more history there. The later decks, the French occult revival, etc. already had the technology in place and the focus would be more on the cards, their meanings, uses, etc. I bet some of those texts in French, about the Marseille deck, would have the information I want.

As I mentioned before, I used to be in the philatelic auction business and I saw many professional people obsessing over stamps, postal history, stamp markings used by the post offices, etc. Many became experts on specific topics and studied their specialty, did extensive research, and eventually wrote a book on the topic. These books were quite common in the field, though they usually printed limited quantities of the books. They were quite desireable in auction as well as the stamps.

I wonder why there isn't more of that with tarot cards. I bet there are some high-powered collectors who have no particular interest in the spiritual/occult value of the cards, with a lot of information/knowledge about these lovely cards we are discussing. And I bet there is a lot more information I would want to find, but it's not in English...yet.

With all I have on my plate, I don't think learning French is a good option. I would barely have time to read the books if they were already translated. LOL.

Diana, I will think on this letter to Camoin. Thanks.