I have a truly shocking number of Rider Waite Smith decks in my tarot collection. I’m not talking about RWS clones…I’m talking about various editions of the deck drawn by Pamela Colman Smith. No one needs as many versions of what amounts to the same deck as what I have. And yet, I do not regret my latest acquisition, the Pam’s Original Art Only deck, in the least. The Pam’s Original deck is a self-published Rider Waite Smith deck that was restored by the Bosnian artist Irena Balaban. I can’t say that I had high expectations for this deck when I ordered it. After all, self-publishing is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to quality. But boy, was I surprised at just how much I enjoyed it.
When I first learned about Balaban’s first RWS deck, the Pam’s Vintage Tarot, I was a bit concerned that it was bootleg of a U.S. Games or AGM-Urania publication, and that one or both of them would be cracking down on it for copyright infringement. Both of those companies hold publishing rights to the “Pam A” versions in different countries, and they rabidly defend those rights. I had zero interest in supporting ‘counterfeit’ decks, so I barely paid attention to those who were raving about their Pam’s Vintage decks. But then I learned that Balaban’s RWS deck didn’t derive from Pam A (or Pam B, C, or D for that matter), but from the earliest deck of all.
While the first run of “Pam A” in 1910 is often considered to be the first edition of the RWS, A.E. Waite did sell a limited number of “proof copies” at a local arts and crafts fair, and they continued to be sold up until about April of 1910 when Rider released Pam A.
These proof copies have subsequently come to be known as the “roses and lilies” deck thanks to the design on its backing, which is very different from the “cracked mud” or “pebbled” design that was featured on the subsequent Rider decks. Today, this is a really rare deck. Only about five are known to exist. In fact, up until about 2002 when a “roses and lilies” deck went up for sale on eBay, a lot of tarot nerds doubted the 1909 deck even existed. (Lo Scarabeo and Stuart Kaplan ended up in a minor bidding war for that deck, and Kaplan won it for $8200. He then went on to publicly show it at the ITS Tarot Congress in Chicago later that year.)
Balaban states that her RWS decks come from an Australian collector’s roses and lilies deck. From what I understand, the roses and lilies deck is a pretty fragile deck. It was published on unlaminated art paper rather than card stock, so the cards themselves are more easily damaged and the printing can rub off. (In fact, the quality of these cards was so poor that they were recalled in 1910. If you returned your roses and lilies deck to Rider, you were sent an early Pam A in exchange.) As you can see in the image below, which compare’s Fools from Balaban’s Pam’s Original with a roses and lilies Fool and Pam A fool from Saskia Jensen’s collection, the ink has either worn off or wasn’t able to fully saturate the paper of the roses and lilies.
In her deck descriptions, Balaban reports that the Australian collector (presumably because they wanted to use the deck but not destroy it) created high resolution scans of each card and provided them to Balaban, asking her to make certain modifications for how they wanted to use the deck. Balaban later turned that into Pam’s Vintage Tarot. When Pam’s Vintage started gaining some popularity, others asked Balaban if she could produce a version without the antiquing effects. That was what largely resulted in the development of the Pam’s Original Art Only deck.
I have to admit, part of me was interested in the Pam’s Original Art Only deck as I figured it would probably be the closest I would ever get to seeing a real roses and lilies deck. However, I would have likely passed on it if that was my only reason for acquiring it as there isn’t too much difference between the roses and lilies and Pam A. As it transpired, though, I was in the market to acquire a more traditionally colored RWS deck to reference and share with others in my study groups, and I definitely did not want to get a U.S. Games Rider Waite deck. (I really hate the plaid backs and the copyright information on the card faces.) Prior to learning about the Pam’s Original Art Only deck, I had been trying to acquire a 2016 English edition of AGM-Urania’s Tarot of A.E. Waite. It is a pretty great Pam A facsimile (though it doesn’t replicate Pamela Coleman Smith’s calligraphy for card titles), but unfortunately U.S. Games has essentially forced it out of print on the grounds that it is too similar to the current version of its Rider Tarot Deck. I thought the Pam’s Original would give me the coloring I desired without the features I disliked all without supporting U.S. Games, so I took the risk.
I am glad I did. I do have to say, I really enjoy the deck. It’s bright and happy with all the lemony yellows and sky blues, and it looks sharp as all get out in a reading thanks to Balaban’s decision to keep the deck borderless. There are some issues I hadn’t anticipated, though, but those are largely because I’m used to pretty clean revisions of Pam A, and the roses and lilies is a “glitchier” run. The wear and print issues with roses and lilies are obvious in the Pam’s Original, but I weirdly hadn’t anticipated that when I ordered the deck. Therefore, I was a little disappointed when I saw the Fool card. He looks pretty good in the picture above, but in real life the blacks in his tunic read more as a dark grey, and the details in the tunic are a bit blurrier than I thought they would be. Having subsequently seen the roses and lilies Fool, I now understand why that is the case, but I was taken aback at first.
I was also similarly disappointed with a lot of the “black background” cards like the Devil and the Tower. The Tower, which I’ve pictured above, is the worst of these. I guess a lot of the “large field” coloring of roses and lilies was variable, and the wear and flecks of other colors are really obvious to me on the black background cards. I have seen a roses and lilies Tower, and it is obvious that the issue was in the original card and not Balaban’s edits of it. However, Balaban’s Tower does look a little cropped in, and I think that may be augmenting the original’s flaws. Unfortunately, I think the Tower is the most unattractive card in this deck, which I lament as I quite enjoy it normally.
Finally, in order to make these cards a standard tarot size and borderless without cropping in too much, Balaban had to do away with the title banners for the majors, aces, and court cards. She does some pretty creative photoshopping to fill in the missing art, and I admire what she was able to accomplish. It is not, however, perfect. On several cards, there are some obvious “lines” where you can see the patterns jump, and if you inspect the cards for a minute, you can usually see the repeats. For me, the two most noticeable photoshops occur on the Magician and the Hierophant cards. To Balaban’s credit, all the patterning in the foliage and the monk’s robes would make it difficult to cleanly photoshop without creating a line unless you were really skilled at restorative digital art. Sometimes, though Balaban also uses a blurring technique, and I find those stand out terribly. Pamela Coleman Smith’s artwork isn’t blurry. There may be some lines that don’t print as neatly as others, but there aren’t outright blurs. Heck, the technology to create that effect didn’t even exist then. I find the worst of these is on the Sun card’s horse, which I’ve pictured above. It bothers me, but I also understand that it would have been very difficult to fill in that artwork otherwise.
My particular deck was printed by DriveThru cards, a print-on-demand service. I had incredibly low expectations of quality, but I was pleasantly surprised: the cards themselves are really solid. They are a hair thinner than those of the rest of my decks, though I can’t decide if that is because the cardstock is of a lower weight or because the lamination is thinner (or both!). The cards are not, however, thin enough to have been noticeable as such if I hadn’t had other decks to hand. I don’t think the thinner cards is a bad thing. In fact, I’m pleased that they’re more flexible right out of the box because they shuffle a good deal easier without being “broken in.” I’ve not used them extensively yet, but I do think they are thick enough to stand up to decently heavy use. The cardstock does have a slight linen effect to it, and that combined with a lighter lamination means the cards look fairly matte straight out of the box. Matte is a desirable finish these days because that means they’ll photograph well without too many awkward contortions on the part of the photographer. There are a couple cards that don’t have the cleanest cut, and you can feel the rougher edges, but overall the quality is far above expectations. I’ve seen much worse productions from large publishers.
What I love most about the cards, though, is the fact that they are, in fact, just the artwork. No borders, no numbers, no titles…just art. I’ve never seen that on any other RWS deck. At this stage in the game, I don’t need that information. I know what the eight of swords is…and if I forget, I’m fully capable of counting the darn swords in the picture. I’m also picking up that when I read for someone who isn’t terribly familiar with tarot, they are ridiculously impressed that I know what all the cards are called. It is a silly little thing, but I think it’s making the reading feel slightly more “magical” to them…or at least making me look a shade more professional! As another bonus, removing the titles is a dead simple way to universalize the cards. I’d be just as comfortable using this deck to read for a Russian as I would an American, and that’s no small thing.
More important, at least for me, is that ever since I hacked the borders off of my Robin Wood, I’ve been finding that borderless decks help me “sink into the scene of the cards” a bit better. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I am finding that I’m more readily able to create a narrative out of a card spread with borderless cards. It’s a bit like the borders are acting a bit like blinders on a horse: they keep me focused on the thing that’s in front of me, not on the interplay of that thing with its surroundings. With this deck, I don’t have to get scissor blisters, which is a definite bonus. And not having the titles at the bottom of the majors, aces, and courts seems to help augment that “sinking” even more. It’s a really cool deck to use, if only for that reason. I definitely have preferred them to my other decks over the last couple of weeks when it comes to meditative contemplation. Who would have thought such a small change would have that profound an effect?
In person, the bright yellows and blues in this deck aren’t my favorite coloration, though they are a heck of a lot better than the mustard yellows, bright oranges, and pale blues I’ve seen in others! However, I do think they photograph very well. Unless I’m doing an extreme close up where you can see some of the color flecks and variances, the cards look extremely sharp in pictures. I would definitely feel comfortable busting them out for public readings in the Instagram age.
If you’re interested in tracking down a copy of this deck, your best bet would be to visit Balaban’s website, My Lucky Card, or her Instagram for the most up-to-date information. If you’re in the European Union, you can order any of her decks direct from the store section of that site. You’ll be able to get a really sturdy 2-part box if you’re an EU customer. If you are in the United States, your best bet is to order from her designer page on DriveThru Cards. Unfortunately, DriveThru cards only provides a very basic tuck box. If you are elsewhere in the world, your best bet is her designer page on The Game Crafter website. Game Crafter also offers a tuck box, but I believe a clear acrylic box is also an option. You can also order decks through her Etsy shop. If you do that, you’re likely to receive the European boxes.
Because Balaban is a self-publisher, the runs of her cards are fairly small. I believe she says 1,000 decks is about her maximum. That means that she can change her editions fairly quickly, depending on interest. In the two or so weeks that have elapsed since I received my deck, she’s stopped selling the Pam’s Original with the blue roses and lilies back. In its place is the same face of the cards, but with a modified “pebbled” back a bit like the Pam A, B, C, and D cards. Therefore, if you like one of her decks, it’s better to order sooner rather than later.