Modern tarot was born in 1909, when a scholar named Arthur Edward Waite designed a new tarot deck—and when he asked Pamela Coleman Smith to execute his designs.
By trade, Pamela “Pixie” Smith was a stage designer and set decorator. She used her theater background to add drama to the deck, by painting a scenic illustration on every single card. Until then, the only cards that featured people and places were the major arcana cards. minor arcana cards generally consisted of a repeated motif, such as six cups in a row, or seven swords. Smith’s illustrations worked as a prompt for each card’s meaning, and the concept revolutionized the Tarot.
Both Waite and Smith also found inspiration from their membership in a turn-of-the-century secret society called the Order of the Golden Dawn. Their deck is firmly rooted in the traditions of the Golden Dawn’s mystical group. Both Waite and Smith were active members of the group, which was similar in many ways to other secret societies, such as the Masons. The Golden Dawn borrowed liberally from other esoteric studies, and the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as a result, incorporates many elements from astrology and kabbalah.
While you don’t need to know anything about the Golden Dawn, Masonry, astrology, or kabbalah to use Tarot cards, you’ll undoubtedly notice symbols and signs that are derived from their work.
Most beginner’s books and classes are based on Rider-Waite-style imagery, and most tarot readers are well versed with the images on each card. Many tarot readers consider it the standard by which all other Tarot decks are compared, if not judged.
Fun fact: Pamela Colman Smith’s given name was actually Corinne — like me! Corinne was also her mother’s name, so she went by her middle name, Pamela. Her friends usually called her “Pixie.”