These two tarot cards, ten swords left, Emperor right, measure 4¾” x 2½”, quite similar to the size of a modern pack of cards. They were found in the binding of a book in the Folger Library collection, a 1673 edition of Vincent Reboul’s Le Pelerinage de S. Maximin. Before bookbinding became standardized as something the publisher did for you it was quite common to use waste paper as binding reinforcement materials. Playing cards were usually printed on a fairly substantial bit of paper and would be ideal for case linings.

The Folger Library blog The Collation, in a post entitled Fortune’s Fools, brings us their story along with a brief run-down of the structure of a tarot pack. The cards were printed from a woodblock — here’s an example from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s collection. (The bits to print black are left at surface height and the rest is cut away.)

Early cards are assumed to have been made entirely by hand. I wonder. Playing cards reached Europe by way of the Middle East, most likely from Egypt. The first documented packs in Europe date from 1440 and 1450 — but I don’t know how they were manufactured. Printing from carved wooden blocks was well established in Europe before Gutenberg’s development of movable metal types — he merely took over the use of the printing press which was already well established. His Bible was printed in the early 1450s. Maybe playing cards were the vector pushing the popularity of the printing press? I wouldn’t be amazed if playing cards arrived in Europe accompanied by the knowledge of how to print them from woodblocks, maybe even accompanied by a woodblock or two — the technology is known to have existed in Egypt in the tenth century: it appears to have originated in China prior to the second century. In fact Gutenberg is known to have been associated with the Master of the Playing Cards, at whose works he learned about the engraving of copper blocks which were used as the Master’s title implies for cards among other things. I would speculate that the black outlines of early playing cards would have been printed from a block, first wood then metal (you could take an image by rubbing or hammering, not just by pressure in a press) and then colored by hand.

It’s no secret, though I didn’t know it, that tarot cards didn’t start out with the mysterious, fortune-telling aura they rejoice in today. They were originally used to play a game, often called trionfitarot in France. (Trionfi can be detected as the origin of the word trumps.) The games may have started in the fourteenth or fifteenth century but the card pack didn’t acquire its divinatory role till the eighteenth century. The local tarot card design, Tarot de Marseille, has become the standard. St Maximin, the subject of the book referenced at the top was of special significance in Marseille. Indeed as The Collation tells us “The book was printed in Marseille, written by a Marseille author, and focuses on three saints (Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Lazare, and Saint Maximin) with a special connection to a holy grotto (Saint Baume) just outside of the city.”

In a vaguely related coincidence comes this story from Printing Impressions telling us R. R. Donnelley is increasing its capacity to serve the needs of game and trading card publishers. Apparently being locked up at home has prompted many to sort their trading card collections. Have tarot readings increased too? I bet they have.

This news comes at the same time as we are being told that LSC (formerly part of R. R. Donnelley) is closing its Spartanburg,SC catalog plant. Last fall LSC had already announced the closure of its Kendallville IN book plant. Times are tough in the book manufacturing world.