While the heyday for 19th century trade cards came in the 1880s, some sets date a little earlier. One of those is the 1878 Forbes Trade Card set, which is one of the earliest baseball sets in general. Let’s take a closer look at this unique issue.
About the 1878 Forbes Trade Cards
While tobacco cards were quite popular in the 19th century, in terms of sheer volume, there were far more trade cards that were printed. Trade cards were advertising cards that businesses used to help promote their goods and services. Often, they were shared by more than one business and that is the reason you will find different company names stamped on cards that had the same image.
A lithographer would create a set of cards that were printed and then businesses could buy them with their name printed on them to distribute to customers. Some businesses also bought the blank cards and stamped their name on them instead.
Many of these cards did not include a year of issue on them. Generally, sellers will date them to the 1880s simply because that is when many of them were printed. But in certain cases, we can seemingly date the cards and the 1878 Forbes set is one of those. That is because an 1878 copyright date is printed on them.
This quirky, baseball-themed set contained only six cards. But its 1878 date means it precedes most of the baseball trade sets that would come after it. Simply put, there are few individual baseball cards that were issued prior to this release and there are even fewer that were complete baseball sets. They are not the earliest baseball cards printed but they are certainly among the first sets that preceded the large group of assumed 1880s baseball cards that would follow soon after.
These cards were printed by the Forbes Company of Boston. Because of that, there would have been a heavy distribution in that area and the eastern United States. You will notice that the advertisements found on these cards will often feature Massachusetts businesses or companies in the northeast.
The cards feature players typically outfitted in red, yellow, and blue uniforms. No gloves were seen in the images, though one player is wielding a bat and a brown-colored baseball appears on four of the cards. Each have a single world title at the top followed by a period, which was a common style back then. The lone card with a title of more than one word is for the card labeled, ‘Home Run.’
This is one of the few baseball comics trade card sets to receive a formal designation by Jefferson Burdick in his American Card Catalog. Burdick classified this set as H804-6 under his H804 Baseball Comics header in the publication. He even noted the regional nature of this set to a degree as he added, ‘issued by locals,’ in his brief description of the release. This was one of only eight sets under that classification that Burdick formally recognized, though there were many others that existed. Burdick did realize there were more of these comical baseball sets out there. But instead of giving each one a formal listing, he lumped them all together under ‘Others,’ classifying them as H804-9.
It is notable to point out that the Forbes name was found on other trade advertising cards as well — even baseball issues. A similar set of trade cards was also a six-card release that we now know of as the Forbes Injury set. Classified by collector Frank Keetz as H804-16, this set features similar looking players and imagery, but are not as colorful as these cards. The muted color scheme of those cards generally makes it quite easy to distinguish them as separate from these cards.
An important point is that this set can be found with variations.
‘Standard’ cards typically have the title printed at the top an the Forbes name and copyright date at the bottom. Those cards can be found with or without a business name printed or stamped on them. Ones without company names are often called ‘stock cards’ and believed not to have been issued or used by businesses. Additionally, the titles are printed in both brown or black ink.
Some cards have none of that print (no title, Forbes name, or copyright date) and merely include the picture. And as in the case with the standard cards mentioned above, these can be found with or without advertiser names. That is somewhat interesting as, at first glance, the cards without the printed words would appear to be unfinished. Yet some of them did have advertiser names on them, leading us to believe that the lack of a title and Forbes name/date may have been entirely intentional, essentially creating a second set.
Shown here is one such example without the title and other print.
1878 Forbes Trade Card Set Checklist
As mentioned, six cards are found in this set. The set contains a series of baseball images with five depicting players and a sixth picturing an assumed umpire. Like many other trade issues, the images are mostly comical. The umpire, for example, is being hit in the head with a baseball. The same fate was met by a fielder on another card titled, ‘Muff,’ as he is unable to field a likely batted ball. And even in general, the players have somewhat odd-looking faces and bodily characteristics.
The checklist is presented below (cards are unnumbered — the list provided is in alphabetical order by title).
- Home Run
- Judgment (Umpire)
1878 Forbes Trade Card Set Prices and Rarity
Despite being about 140 years old, these cards are not impossible to find. They are, however, somewhat uncommon and even on eBay, you will usually only see a few examples at any given time.
Viewing the graded population reports for these cards is not terribly helpful in determining their rarity. That is because most examples of these have not been professionally graded. But you will rarely see them at shows and, as mentioned, not even found on large marketplaces like eBay too often.
They appear to be somewhat of a bargain given that rarity. While they do not feature real players, even compared to ‘newer’ trade card issues that also do not depict actual players, they are quite affordable. For example, the Sporting News trade cards, which came after these, can sell for hundreds of dollars. Those cards do not feature real players. Decent examples of these often sell in the $25-$50 range. However, nicer copies or ones with unusual advertisements can command more.