Seventies Decks

I missed tarot shopping in the 1970s by only a few years. Only now do I see it as a very distinct phase in tarot history. Only now does it seem to me increasingly, distortedly romantic, something which – if I’m honest – is simply the vessel into which I pour a more general nostalgia and malaise. If it weren’t tarot cards it would be toy cars or children’s TV programmes or breakfast table ceramics, things that immediately conjour up the cliché of more innocent times. But I have seen, over the last year or so, a core group of decks consolidate into the very essence of what I think of as my five definitive 1970s deck which I love more and more. The reality is that although I was buying tarot decks shortly after the decade finished, these decks (with the exception of two) weren’t really on my radar and I didn’t buy them until much later. The unromantic truth of the matter is that I bought the Grimaud Grand Etteilla, the 1JJ Swiss, the British Blue Box Rider Waite Smith deck, The Cagliostro, the Grimaud Tarot de Marseiles with its English titles (“Queen of Coins”) and a pastel coloured, inoffensive deck called The Prediction Tarot which I once thought was beautiful but which I now find rather vacuous.  The Thoth (it would have been the famous “greenie”) was also often on the shelves, high up like porn, exuding devilishness.

It took me a long time to appreciate these decks which I have come to think of as the defining decks of the 1970s and, as in all trends, what ultimately matters in the long term is often that which we overlook at the time.  You look back – the 1960s, the 1950s, the 1980s – and can guarantee that most people were not listening to the quality music that is so revered today, but the excrutiating, forgettable pap that it pains us to remember and which we deny ever having listened to. Our memory is selective. We can look back on our youth and console ourselves by thinking we detect our former self at the very cutting edge of cultural history and hope that there are no witnesses nearby to contest it. However, when I started buying tarot in the very early 1980s, I wasn’t interested in acquiring a copy of the Morgan Greer. I remember seeing it in Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume I and finding it embarassingly old-fashioned. Those moustaches, that hair! The children’s storybook colouring that I had long since grown out of, the faint air of laughable disco in its pompous poses. Nothing was funnier for me at the time than the tasteless, inelegant 1970s and I pointedly avoided the deck. I wanted my tarot decks to be mysterious and spooky and the Morgan Greer felt like a clumsy, brown, unrefined deck that made me cringe a little. I didn’t buy it. Then there was Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot which – again – I remember from Kaplan’s Encylopedia. I found The Fool rather striking (I remember this much). It reminded me of that Portrait of King Edward VI by the studio of Holbein. But the rest of the deck seemed drab, uniform, po-faced and inexpressive. The deck draws on that late 1960s deco revival and the 1980s was also referencing the 1920s again, but to my mind, it was doing it so much better. The deck seemed cold and flat and – again – just not mysterious enough for my burgeoning gothic tastes. I wanted “old” and old – as I understoood it – wasn’t the decade before.  Then there was the Hoi Polloi which I also knew from Kaplan, but I hadn’t seen any images from it in colour (how quaint life was in the pre-internet world). If I had, I would have found it daubed and pink and rather felt-tipped and I would have sneered mercilessly at its children’s birthday party colours.

The only two decks out of my canonical five which I actually bought at the time were The Balbi and The Royal Fez Moroccan. I erroneously include this latter deck as a 70s deck, even though it was created in the 1950s by Roland Berril. However, it was in 1975 that it was published as a mass market deck by AG Muller/U.S Games and so I think of it as belonging to that decade. I bought this deck 8 years after its publication. I didn’t often see it in shops but one day I saw it and decided to buy it as I had seen it in a list of “most popular” decks – that used to come on the extra 79th card –  so assumed it must be good. However, I was dismayed when I opened it up; so monochrome and uninspiring, with some sickly dabs of yellow. It seemed unfinished,with its scribbled hatching, unlaminated cardstock, sketchy details and no titles. I tried hard to like it, but its figure-drawing looked stilted, some of the backgrounds were virtually blank! And so it languished for many years in it’s slightly-too-tight orange box until I rediscovered it years later and let it slowly work its charm. All that I had dismissed it for was subsequently reason to love it.

Then the Balbi, which I only bought because it was cheap. Decks at this time were expensive for me with my pocket money. The Balbi was the cheapest deck in the shop and I bought it on one of those days (circa 1984) when I simply had to take something home with me to appease that throb of tarot craving. I took off the shrinkwrap and knew that this deck felt like a deck for children. The colours felt like those of a cheap board game; too childish, too plastic. The faces were all wrong, the Minor Arcana too modern (nobody made the distinction between Minor Arcana and Pip cards then; all books refered to them as The Minor Arcana). And what was with the butterflies in the Cups suit? A deck for girls. The Wands didn’t look like Wands, Death certainly didn’t look like Death (too strolling, too comical). Too much purple; purple was for 70s jump suits, not tarot decks. So, snuggled up with the Royal Fez Moroccan, it slumbered in a box while I busied myself with school, college, university and beyond, and thought of the 1JJ Swiss as the only true tarot deck.

Then something happened. Trends changed, tastes changed, I changed and came back to tarot with a different eye and, after a few years of rediscovering tarot art and what had been published in the intervening years, decks from when I was younger suddenly seemed desirable, somehow summed up the magic, effervescence and wonder of those years. After some experimentation, I have distilled 1970s tarot into these five decks. In order of publication; the Aquarian (1970), the Hoi Polloi (1972), The Royal Fez Moroccan and Balbi (both 1975) and finally the Morgan Greer (1979). In a sense it’s strange to think of the Morgan Greer as very 70s when it comes right at the end of the decade. It’s virtually 1980s and yet looks so much earlier. I come to appreciate different things; the feel of cardstock from that time counts for a lot now. I find myself wishing that all decks had the cardstock of the Royal Fez Moroccan. I think that half of what I love about the Hoi Polloi is simply the size of it and the broadly rounded corners resting in my hand, the brownness, the LP-cover, gentle lamination which you feel will crack like varnish. 

All of these decks have an atmosphere which musters up childhood for me, even though I didn’t have these decks as a child and as an adolescence I positively rejected some of them. But what I once disliked in them – for being uncomfortably near to me in time, cramping my style – I now rejoice in. The colours in the Morgan Greer are now sweetly autumnal and could not have been produced in any other era. The Balbi captures something of the exuberance of pop art like no other deck I know. The Royal Fez Moroccan is more captivating than other decks by dint of having no names, no words, just the images seeping into one another without boundaries or restraint, with fairytale characters leaping off the blank backgrounds and blending into a haphazard narrative. If this deck were produced nowadays it would be glossed and plastified and titled and keyworded. The Morgan Greer would bordered and digitally retouched and the stars on the backs made uniform (lest the more anxious among us feel unsettled by their lack of symmetry and sue). The Hoi Polloi – which I still think of as some parlour game relic – would never see the light of day, encroaching as it does on a complex copyright saga I do not even pretend to understand. And perhaps the Aquarian could be made a bit more cheerful, to draw in a younger crowd?  All of these decks now strike me as even more beautiful because I overlooked them at the time. I like them because they remind me of a time before tarot was expected to cater for every single whim of every single reader. We were not offended if it wasn’t Wiccan enough. We didn’t expect miracles. I don’t know what we expected really; and that’s the magic; tarot was mysterious; we didn’t know what to expect. Feeling on the edge of things, up against the mainstream tide and conventions, any tarot deck you found was a treasure. I have come full circle and braving the onslaught of deck gimmicks and fads, know that I have found my treasures. They’ve been here all along.


About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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22 Responses to Seventies Decks

  1. Sharyn says:

    Had ’em all. Sold and gifted ’em all. I lived the 70’s it wasn’t all that groovy. . .

  2. Saturness says:

    I absolutely loved this post! It’s like travelling in time in the company of many tarot decks! 😉

    Of the decks you mentioned I have the Morgan Green (in Spanish), the Aquarian, the Royal Fez and the 1JJ. And I agree… when I look through these decks, they seem to have an atmosphere, a unique spirit that could not be reproduced even if we tried. They are representative of their time. I can feel it even though I was born in the 80s, lol!

    I love these decks and even though they are not my reading reading ones, I don’t think I’d ever part with them.

  3. lovely deck bags you got there.
    i have aquarian and balbi and quite like both. hoping to find a hoi polloi at an affordable price eventually. they are pretty nifty decks

  4. Le Fanu says:

    Thank you for the comments (bags by Sulis & Baba Studios by the way…)

  5. Wintergreen says:

    These are the ones that have endured that I still see around… are there decks from the 70’s that have fallen from grace & are seen no more?

    • Le Fanu says:

      I’m sure there are. These are just the ones that appeal to me. I’m sure others would draw up different lists, and I’m sure there are lots that have disappeared from view and nobody really thinks about anymore!

      • vee says:

        These are the kinds of decks I want to know more about! Decks that fell through the cracks, if it were. Got any recs there?

      • Le Fanu says:

        I’d need to have a think on that one as I never planned to specialise in the 70s. I just enjoy the mainstream mass market decks from the time…

  6. Jennifer says:

    ugh, the 70’s. I was there, and I wasn’t all that impressed. The fashion was the worst, or at least I thought it was the worst, but that was before i got hit with the 80’s…and these were the years that I was supposed to care so much about fitting in….it was hell, because I just could not wear all those ridiculous clothes. Disco designer jeans, feathered hair – oh, it was awful. The hippy look was my rebellion – I spent the next two decades in Levis, moccasins, and gauzy blouses from India.

    I didn’t buy my first deck until the mid 80’s, and I agonized over the choice – I had no interest in actually collecting, so this deck was to be the only one, it had to be perfect. I finally settled on the Sacred Rose, purchased in a head shop/new age bookstore in Philadelphia….and this is the deck that I used all the way up until I actually started collecting, which was only a few years ago.

    Most of the decks from that time period did not interest me, for many of the reasons you mention. So it’s funny how them so charming…..but I would never use the term nostalgia to describe that time period. Never.

    • Le Fanu says:

      I was also there, just not in deck-buying mode. I’ve come back over the last few years to finding certain aspects of these years endearing. The clothes weren’t the finest, unless I suppose you’re talking Yves Saint Laurent, but what most people were wearing looked cheap (I think). I blame the synthetic fabrics. I always said I was glad I wasn’t actually having to buy clothes in the 70s as I don’t know which items out of all that hideousness I’d have bought. Buying in the 80s – with no fashion faux pas – seemed easier if you played it safe. Yes, clothes were generally dire in the 70s but I think decks don’t come out of it looking too bad. And I love that expression Head Shop. I’ve always found it so funny…

  7. David Bogie says:

    Speaking of the 70s, these decks are hard to find. Usually. There is a h-u-g-e used book store in Nampa, Idaho, called Yesteryears, easily researched. (1211 1st Street South, Nampa,‎ ID‎ 83651 United States (208) 467-3581) I was there today, June 9, 2012. I told the proprietor I would tell other tarot collectors about their stock. In a special drawer, they have five or six copies of the old Balbi for $10-15 each and five or six copies of the weirdly cool Piatnik at $14-20 each. They all seem to be new but rather shelf worn. The price stickers suggest they are new old stock from a long-defunct shop. There was also a copy of the Santa Fe deck/book set, $20, I believe. It was used but in great condition. THere was also a strange edition of an Eden Gray book; hardcover, horizontal format, red dust jacket, $5.00 IIRC.
    I can visit the shop again next week if you want or need more information but you can just call them.

    • shantidevi says:

      Thank you for this post. I have been interested both the Balbi ($10) and the Piatnik Wien ($15) and love a bargain. The Santa Fe was $12.50. May your good deed be returned to you ten-fold. The Balbis are shelf worn, and one of the two I bought was missing the LWB and the other had grit on every card, but well worth the call. They shipped media rate.

      Such stores are a real treasure. Le Fanu often talks about the dwindling esoteric and metaphysical shops which are so worth supporting. Imagine my surprise at finding a barely used Hong Kong Thoth at a newly founded one!

      The bag for the Hoi Polloi is enviable. Great design and illustrations from the 70s in this post.

      My early Morgan Greer has different star patterns on the (unevenly blue) backs of cards in the same deck.

      Of the 70s decks, one that is under-appreciated is Hurley and Horler’s New Tarot. It’s special. Something about the small card size, simple and insightful artwork is very appealing.

      • Le Fanu says:

        I’m glad you found your bargains! As for the Hong Kong Thoth, what can I say? I always thought I had a good track record with decks but nothing remotely resembling this find. The bag for the Hoi Polloi by the way can be found at Tarot Sulis, a wonderful site. She has done many, many beautiful bags for my most prized and favourite decks (often two different categories).

      • shantidevi says:

        I can’t reply to your comment below, therefore above:

        I’m excited about the Balbi, because the ‘Spanish pattern’ pips appeal to me. I was thrilled to find them on the Valentina Visconti. An unexpected treat.

        Thank you for the bag link. I’m good with a needle, DIY makes a more generous budget for other excesses. It’s the textile that caught my eye! I do have good luck with decks. I bought and shipped Le Tarot Magique (not an easy one to find!), pristine copies of the Vandenborre, Belline, and Egiziano from overseas for the same or considerably less than any of those silk bags!

        I admit, I do have good luck, though. It takes some diligence and a willingness to stretch, but very good. A favorable horoscope for such items helps, too. I was away from cards for a long time, and was encouraged by another oracle increase guidance by divination — not collecting. But, I had similar good fortune with the Greenwood. I can’t say I coveted it, I understood its value and apparently it ‘wanted’ to be with me, too. Not coveting and loving to study helps, I think.

      • David Bogie says:

        I am so very glad you were able to connect with Yesteryears and that you were able to add some interesting period decks to your collection. It was my pleasure to hook you up!

  8. Shaheen Miro says:

    There is something wonderful about these old decks, though they do look a little dated at times. I love the Aquarian Tarot. I have always wanted that deck, but I have heard that the newly printed ones are really undesirable. It’s sad that some of these decks are so hard to find now. I always look for them on Ebay. But there hasnt been much luck in resent years. I did, however, snag a deck of Morgan Greer cards about 6 years ago that were from the 70s and I love them so much because of the colors and how the images are very cropped.


    • Le Fanu says:

      Yes, fortunately my editions of the Morgan Greer, Aquarian etc are older copies. It makes a difference. be patient and I’m sure you’ll find some. They pop up quite regularly.

  9. David Bogie says:

    Yes, there’s a Morgan-Greer at Yesteryears, too.

  10. fennario says:

    You would LOVE the majors-only Tarot issued by Scholastic Books in 1971 or 72. That’s right, the kids could order a Tarot at school in those days. 🙂 As a Tarot, it was pretty lame, but as 70’s kitsch it’s unbeatable.

    The cards came in sheets and you had to punch them out, so each card always had those little nubs on the edges. The art was standard early 70’s faux-hip. And each card featured a song. The Moon showed a moon with an evil face and the caption “Creedence Clearwater Revival: ‘Bad Moon Risin’ ” That was one of the better songs. Most of them were along the lines of the forgettable pap you mention, I think the Fool was chasing a butterfly and the caption was – yes – Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Elusive Butterfly’.

    If you see it, grab it for hilarity’s sake!

  11. Carla says:

    I was there in the 70s, though not yet in my teens, and being a child in the Bible Belt, would certainly have balked if anyone had showed me a tarot deck. I had a friend with a ouija board and I wouldn’t even stay in the same room with it when we had a sleepover–she had to put it in her mom’s closet. But oh how I love the 70s decks now, even though I can just get reprints of them. Morgan Greer is my favourite reading deck, and I’ve just recently ordered Aquarian. Your other three I can only dream of. For now!

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