Cigarette Cards Tell History

The concept of inserting a blank card, as a pack "stiffener", to add support to the paper cigarette packs became very popular with cigarette manufacturers in the late 19th century. While the cards were blank when they were originally introduced, they soon featured brand advertisements and in 1886 Goodwin & Co., in the U.S., began producing a series of collectible cards in an effort to promote brand loyalty. They were usually issued in numbered series of twenty-five, fifty, or larger runs to be collected.

The cards were very popular since at the time, most working class families could not afford books, and newspapers featured very few pictures. The cards were dubbed "The Working Man's Encyclopedia" due to the manner in which they brought famous faces, historical and geographical images and facts to the masses.

The year 1887 was an important one for tobacco cards as both U.S. tobacco companies Allen & Ginter and Old Judge released sets that are extremely collectible today. Both featured baseball’s best player at the time, Cap Anson. Old Judge cards showed him in a suit and tie while Allen & Ginter’s had him in full uniform, bat in hand. Another memorable card from the Allen & Ginter set is the one of John L. Sullivan. The first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, Sullivan is shown shirtless and appears ready for a fight.

As a group, tobacco cards are extremely difficult to find in decent condition, a requirement for many serious card collectors, as they have been weathered for more than 120 years and were originally made to support a cigarette pack, not to last a century.

cap anson.jpg (1510111 bytes)The most famous American tobacco cards are the T-sets. There were five T-sets issued: T201s, which featured Mecca Cigarette cards; T202s, which were packed with Hassan cigarettes and had multi-player cards; T204s, which came in Ramly and T.T.T. tobacco packs; T205s, which were known as the "gold border" cards and were issued by various brands; and, finally, the famed T206 set.

The T206 set was released between 1909 and 1911 and had 525 cards, 389 Major Leaguers, the rest depicting players from the Minors, in packs of cigarettes put out by 16 different companies. These cards were known as the "white border" cards, and they remain highly collectible today.

In the T206 set is the famous Honus Wagner card, which is considered the best of the best of card collecting. Legend has it that fewer than 200 cards of the Hall of Fame shortstop were produced because Wagner was not happy with the card's producer, the American Tobacco Company, and the smoking message it sent to children, so he requested his cards be pulled from the set. Consequently, very few Wagner cards made it into circulation, which makes the T206 Wagner extremely rare. The card is also controversial because the one that sold for the highest price is said to have been trimmed to improve its condition. That card, once owned by hockey star Wayne Gretzky, was sold for $2.8 million in a private sale to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick in 2007. There are other uncommon cards in the set, such as the Eddie Plank, but nothing compares to the scarcity of the Wagner.

john l sullivan.jpg (654737 bytes)British cigarette manufacturer W.D. & H.O. Wills began producing cigarette cards in 1888. At first these British cards only featured text, but in 1894 Liverpool tobacco firm Ogden’s produced the first purely pictorial set known as the ‘Guinea Golds.’ They appeared from 1894 to 1907 covering events, personalities and influences of that time. Thousands of these were produced on subjects like Boer War & Boxer Rebellion, personalities, weapons, transport, actresses, racehorses, sportsmen and many more, with varying designs. John Player & Sons issued two sets of actresses and several military sets.

In 1895 Wills produced their first pictorial set ‘Ships and Sailors’, and followed it up in 1896 with the first sporting set ‘Cricketers’ in 1896.

British Cigarette Cards often depicted humor like the set titled Double Meaning Sayings issued in 1898 by Wills, showing illustrations with headings such as "A costly tie" (Wedding ceremony), "A good draughtsman" (barman pulling a pint) and "His honor at steak" (judge enjoying a meal).

As with baseball cards in the United States, sporting cards were the most popular in Britain. The first football cards, Marcus & Company’s ‘Footballers & Club Colours, appeared in 1896. Today the early football sets are some of the most valuable cigarette cards on the market. Taddy & Co also produced an early collectible set entitled "Clowns and Circus Artistes." This set is one of the most expensive collectible sets, valued at over $1000 US dollars per card!

In 1890 many of the competing American tobacco companies combined to make a single company called the American Tobacco Company. Since there was no more serious competition, making insert cards was unnecessary as a promotional tool, and from this time to early in the 20th Century, few cigarette cards were made in the United States.

However, in Britain business was booming. From about 1901 cigarette cards really caught the public’s imagination and over 300 tobacco companies issued thousands of different sets.

Wills issued over 175 different sets alone, and it is thought there were over 11,000 cards issued solely depicting the subject of cricket. Companies such as John Player & Sons and Taddy & Company produced many notable sets, and in 1907 American cards reappeared when the U.S government began to use antitrust laws to dismantle the American Tobacco Company and competition between brands, from home and abroad, began again in earnest.

Some sets are more valuable than others are and among these are those printed but withheld or withdrawn for some reason. In June 1915, the Centenary of the Battle of Waterloo, Wills decided to print a set to commemorate the fact. But because the French were their allies in World War I, they were never issued. A few sets escaped being destroyed and are now extremely rare. Another similar thing happened in 1914 to another Wills set "Musical Celebrities." This set had eight cards depicting German or Austrian artists who were replaced by allied celebrities. A set titled "The Life of King Edward VIII" was cancelled in the year of his abdication.

The First World War brought a halt to card production on both sides of the Atlantic due to a lack of materials. The early 1920s saw their reintroduction, with new emphasis on film stars, sports, and military topics. It helped that cigarettes were often given out free to military personnel. The subjects illustrated included recruiting posters, infantry training, modern war weapons, military vehicles, Allied army leaders, Britain’s Part in The War, etc.

Naturally, all was filtered through government and military censors although a problem still arose when one company’s series on Royal Navy ships and statistics were rumored to have been gathered up by German intelligence and put to use by its U-boat fleet.

Compared with British sets, German sets of cards tend to be enormous. German sets often contain several hundred pictures and a few sets contained over 1000 pictures. Whereas British sets concentrate on a few particularly interesting aspects of a subject, German sets try to give the subject blanket coverage.

HitlerBookNTI1_800x548.jpg (71028 bytes)Albums for the pictures were published which were much more elaborate than the usual English ones. They took the form of books published without pictures, and the cigarette pictures were stuck in to provide the illustrations. Over a period of time the completed albums built up into a large-scale reference work. It was a cheap way of building up a home library which everyone could afford.

The rise to power of the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1933 brought an assortment of picture series with corresponding themes such as Germany Awakens, Fight for the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, as well as the more conventional subjects. Possibly these sets were intended simply as a celebration of what was perceived as a new beginning after the hyper-inflation and depression of the 1920s but many still believe it was a form of propaganda.

Even before there were films, there were cigarette cards featuring stage actors and actresses. As the movie industry evolved, cigarette cards were issued featuring international Hollywood stars and local movie stars. While the text from some of the cards issued might be in another language, the stars are generally recognizable.

The "Golden Age of Hollywood" coincided with the "Golden Age" of collecting film star cigarette cards in many countries throughout the world. While film star cigarette cards were virtually non-existent in the U.S. during the 1930s they were very popular in other countries including the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Australia, Egypt, Finland, Cuba, Italy, and Chile.

Cigarette cards featuring film stars were perhaps most popular in the U.K., with hundreds of sets being issued in the 1930s. Movie stars were a popular subject, and the British cigarette cards documented these film stars from the beginning of motion pictures. These cards now form an historical record of the beginnings of the movie business.

A surprising number of these cigarette cards have survived in nice condition. This is probably due to the large number of collectors who collected and protected these beautiful cards when they were issued. It is also due to the fact that British card collecting became an organized hobby long before card collecting gained popularity in the United States. There were British firms in the card selling business as far back as the early 1930s, and these companies helped maintain the supply and condition of these sets as they stocked them for their customers.

The stunning beauty of many of the cigarette card sets continues to attract collectors today. These cards were a very important part of the cigarette business in the 1920s and 1930s, and the quality of the cards was taken seriously by manufacturers.

Some of the most beautiful sets issued came from Gallaher Ltd., one of the most prolific film star cigarette card producers during the 1930s.

One of the most unique sets during the 1930s is the 1934 Carreras Ovals set. Issued by Carreras Ltd. of London, the cards are oval in shape and feature a gummed surface on the reverse. This set features a large amount of famous stars of the 1930s, and includes some of the earliest known cards of Laurel and Hardy, the Four Marx Bros., Clark Gable, Garry Cooper, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Richard Dix, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Al Jolson, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Myrna Loy.

As the "Golden Age" of Hollywood began to fade during the late 1930s, so did the "Golden Age" of cigarette cards featuring film stars. In the United States consolidation of the tobacco companies had started on a much grander scale and fewer cards were produced as the larger corporations swallowed up smaller competing brands. The quality of cards began to deteriorate, and competition from other products began to decrease the popularity of cigarette cards.

In 1940, World War II brought an end to most cigarette cards, when they were deemed a non-essential item and a waste of valuable paper. While film star cigarette cards never really started up again after the War, they are still collected worldwide and offer a great way to combine a passion for film with collecting cards.

The hobby of collecting cigarette cards is known as cartophily, and those who collect them are cartophilists. Collectors often focus their collection on cards from a particular company or brand, or cards on a specific topic such as cricketers or historical monuments. Their rarity, condition, age and subject grade cigarette cards.

The most comprehensive guide to prices is Murray's Guide to Cigarette and Other Trade Cards, a catalogue produced by dealer Murray Cards since 1967. It has become widely accepted as the industry standard guide for cigarette cards, in the same way that The American Card Catalogue has for baseball and trading cards.