Everyone who had a hand in their creation is gone. Those in charge of marketing them passed on decades ago. Even those who were just learning to read and write when they were released are dead and buried. Even though we can’t hear or see them talk about it anymore, though, what they put on the record more than a century ago is pretty clear.
After digging through newspaper archives, it’s plain to see the ‘baseball pictures’ put into cigarette packs by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911 were a source of delight and ongoing controversy. It’s also obvious they were a huge sales and marketing success.
The T206 cards, labeled as such much later in Jefferson Burdick’s catalog, were hidden inside numerous brands of cigarettes beginning in the early summer of 1909.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about a story that appeared in a Charlotte, NC newspaper in August of 1909, which chronicled the “remarkable” interest among youngsters. The term ‘baseball card’ hadn’t even been coined yet but the paper told us boys were gathering around smoke shops and street vendors, begging adults who bought cigarettes to hand them over. Like kids who fawned over Mantle, Mays, Aaron and Musial in the 1950s, early 20th century youth were fixated on Ty Cobb and other stars of the day.
The paper also reported kids were actually buying the cigarette packs, taking out the card and selling the smokes at a discount. That’s where the whole craze became a bigger story, especially in the Carolinas, home base for much of the tobacco industry. According to a 1909 edition of the Statesville Landmark, the cards were even responsible for criminal activity:
“So great is the desire to possess these pictures that boys afflicted with the mania do not scruple at means to obtain them. It was published in the last issue of ‘The Landmark’ that a drug store in Winston was robbed one night last week and it was evident the robbery was committed by boys, for numerous cigarette packages had been opened and the pictures of the baseball men extracted. The only other things missed were some ice cream and chewing gum. Thus were boys induced to commit burglary as a result of this craze.”
The Orangeburg (SC) Times and Democrat wrote that putting baseball players in tobacco products was a practice that “should be stopped”, citing an increase in the number of small boys who it says had taken up smoking:
“There is a craze among some of the small boys of this town, which doubtless extends to many other towns, to secure the pictures of baseball stars which the American Tobacco Company encloses in the packages of cigarettes it offers for sale. The Fort Mill Times says from a business standpoint, this was a happy thought on the part of the cigarette makers, whose sales have largely increased through the device, but it has meant resultant demoralization of a great number of small boys who, in their eagerness to secure the baseball pictures, have becomes cigarette smokers. There is a law on the statute books of this State against the sale of cigarettes to minors under 18 years of age, and it would be well for the officers of the law to keep an eye for violators of the law.”
On September 1, 1909, the Winston Sentinel wrote an editorial type piece entitled “Tempting the Children”, which took the marketing guys to task for putting something that was of interest to young people in a product meant for adults.
“The advertising man who conceived the idea of putting baseball pictures in cigarette packages did a good thing for his employers, but a mighty bad thing for the small boy,” they wrote. “There ought to be some way to prohibit this kind of thing. It will do more to start young boys to smoking cigarettes than any other agency of which we can conceive.”
The Raleigh Observer agreed:
“The Sentinel has a good idea of the situation. The man who thought of using the baseball craze to advertise cigarettes was a man who knew his business and is a valuable man to the American Tobacco Company, but then the idea has its bad side. Every child is wild to get the baseball men and every nickel that can be gotten goes for cigarettes. Of course it is impossible to find out who sells them, but a news item from this city this week states that the number of licenses to sell cigarettes has increased wonderfully within the last few months. That the boys are buying the cigarettes is a settled fact and there are always people who will sell anything for the money.”
Also that summer, The Farmer and Mechanic of Raleigh spoke up:
“When the trust first began its big sales of cigarettes it appeared to one element of the population by putting the nude or near-nude picture of a woman, sometimes an actress, in with every package of cigarettes. That made them popular with the lower type “sports” and hangers-on at pool-rooms and barber-shops and saloons.
“To-day the trust is turning its attention to trying to catch the little boys by putting the pictures of some noted base-ball player in each package. Is any concern selling these coffin-tacks warranted in making this tempting bait to the children?”
Coffin tacks? Yes, even in 1909, the anti-smoking faction, even on Tobacco Road, had harsh nicknames for cigarettes.
The Statesville Landmark’s editorializing almost took on the flavor of an old-time tent revival, with preacher bringing hellfire upon those involved in the tobacco card campaign. Here’s more from their missive:
“It is bad enough to manufacture and sell cigarettes—and we sometimes wonder how merchants who could not be induced to sell an intoxicating drink will sell cigarettes and sometimes sell them to boys in plain violation of the law, reconcile the matter to their consciences—for the very harmful effects of the cigarette on a boy, mentally, morally, and physically, is admitted. There is no longer any argument on that point; examples may be seen in every community. But if cigarettes are made and sold the people who place with them something to catch the boys—in a way make an additional source of corruption—deserve a term in the State prison.
“The cry of “Save the Boys!” is ever present with us. Many good people thought that when the legalized liquor traffic was eliminated the chief source of evil disappeared. But the agents of Satan are not easily thwarted. Various substitutes, concoctions of poison and other health-destroying ingredients, some of them worse than the genuine article, have been put on the market. But the cigarette manufacturers have been wise in their day and generation. They have given liberally of their ill-gotten gains—the price of the physical, mental and moral destruction of thousands of boys—to “Christian education,” to churches, theological seminaries, missions and other Church and benevolent causes: and they have thus ‘bought off’ attacks on their business; have bought sentiment and forestalled criticism. When has anybody heard an arraignment of the cigarette, for instance, from a religious body, or a religious newspaper, here in North Carolina? If anything is said it is a perfunctory, half-hearted, non-effective sort of criticism. Here is an evil that is sapping the lives of the boys, but the proceeds of the traffic—the blood money—has compromised the very people who would be expected to lead an attack on it—and there is silence, a mighty, speaking silence.
“It is indeed a strange situation, but the substantial accuracy of the statements hereinbefore made cannot be denied.”
The Greensboro Daily News was watching and listening to all of the commentary and tried to bring a voice of reason to the proceedings. The paper felt the increase in cigarette use was just part of an ongoing change in smoking preferences and that others were putting the blame for kids buying cigarettes in the wrong place:
“The small boy as a rule hasn’t or should not have much money to buy cigarettes or anything else with. Our observation is that he relies mainly on begging his pictures from the large boys and grown men. Of course, some very small boys smoke cigarettes now and, for the matter, chew tobacco, just as they have done in the years that are past. It is, however, likely that very few boys smoke or use tobacco at all before they are fourteen years old, or thereabouts. If the smaller fry use tobacco it shows pretty plainly that their parents are not attending to their business as they should. The recent apparent increase in the sale of readymade cigarettes, therefore, is to our mind explainable in another way.
The number of cigarettes actually smoked has carried by little in all these years, in our opinion. The only difference is that the public taste has changed from one kind of smoke to another.
This explanation of the increased demand for cigarettes may not suit everybody, but it is far more reasonable than the baseball picture idea.”
After millions were distributed, T206 cards eventually ran their course and it’s likely local governments (and parents) began to make a more concerted effort to keep the younger kids away from tobacco use. At least for another year or two, though, there were more “baseball pictures” to chase.