Today, baseball cards are as innocuous as a glass of lemonade on a warm summer afternoon. Tearing into a pack of cards can open the flood gates of nostalgia. And if only briefly, brings us back to a simpler time. Let’s talk about a sometimes-forgotten collectible… cigarette cards!
The trips to the local card shop. Memories of collecting cards in plastic 3 ring binders. Engineering sometimes elaborate trades with friends in hopes to curate our own perfect collection. Being a student of history, I always wondered where it all started. Then, I followed the trail all the way back to the victorian age tobacco industry, and the advent of “Cigarette Cards.”
Where trading cards started.
In the late 19th century, cigarette manufacturers began to insert blank cards in their packs of cigarettes as a means to support the somewhat fragile paper packs. Originally, these cards, or “stiffeners,” were blank. Eventually, they began featuring advertisements.
In 1886, the tobacco manufacturer Goodwin & Co produced a series of “Collectable” cigarette cards in hopes to promote brand loyalty. They first used sepia-toned photographic albumen prints, and later chromolithographic reproductions of multi-colored etchings. In 1887 the “Old Judge“ brand of cigarettes introduced the first major set of baseball cards. This first set was comprised of over 2,000 images using albumen prints. 1887 also saw the release of the Allen & Ginter set of cigarette cards. Both of these are very collectable to this day.
Working man’s encyclopedia
Cigarette cards would feature athletes from different sports and other cultural norms of the day. They became very popular at the time because most working-class families could not afford books. Plus, most newspaper publications did not feature many images. Eventually, the cigarette cards would become known as “The Working Mans Encyclopedia” because they brought athletes, celebrities, and historical images to the people. Almost like an early analog precursor to the modern internet.
The most collectible baseball card is said to be the Honus Wagner cigarette card. The Wagner card was originally produced for the T206 set for the American Tobacco Company in 1906. The card depicts Honus Wagner, a Hall of Fame shortstop and staunch anti-tobacco figure.
Wagner protested the use of his likeness with a pro tobacco product that was aimed at children and demanded his card be removed from the line. In the end, fewer than 200 of the Wagner cards were produced. Even fewer made it into circulation. As a result, the T206 Wagner cigarette card is considered to be the “Holy Grail” of baseball cards and sold for a record 3.25 million in a deal brokered by Mile High Card Company.
In time, the first world war brought a halt to card production thanks to a lack of materials. However, in the 1920s there was a reintroduction of the cigarette cards that saw an emphasis on film stars, athletes, and military figures. It was commonplace for the military to issue packs of cigarettes to military personnel at the time. Later, cigarette cards were deemed non-essential and a waste of valuable paper During WW2. There were even rumors that German intelligence gathered information on allied Navy ships from cigarette cards.
Today, we have seen a reintroduction of the cigarette card from manufactures like Upper Deck and Topps. In 2016 trading card brand Topps relaunched the popular Allen & Ginter cigarette card line. The history of cigarette cards is an important one and it’s awesome to see the legacy carried on with new and interesting releases. So, the next time you find yourself opening up a pack of cards, keep your eyes open! After all, you never know what you may find.
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