While card collecting ultimately became quite an accepted hobby, it wasn’t necessarily viewed in the greatest light in its early days. The very earliest cards, typically understood to be trade and advertising issues, weren’t terribly complex. Used as a simple advertising medium for businesses, those cards were often collected and placed into scrapbooks. There was less concern with those topics, which often featured harmless subjects, including pictures of children, flowers, birds, and on occasion — sports.
However, card collecting really ramped up with the creation of the tobacco card in the 1880s. Those cards, most often inserted into packages of cigarettes, lit a fire under the card collecting hobby. And while that might sound like a great thing, all sorts of problems became associated with it.
See, like trade cards, the cards were intended to be used as advertisements for various cigarette brands. And while that certainly happened, an ancillary effect is that they were heavily desired by children. Thus, you had children buying cigarettes or using them in games, which many feared would lead them to gambling as they got older. There was actual violence with the cards causing fights. Some of the content of the cards was also called into question. In particular, religious organizations called out cards of actresses or pretty women deemed to be too ‘racy’ for distribution. I’ve covered this before but all of that led to a less than favorable view of card collecting.
Another problem created by the cards? Children began pestering adults for them. There are countless stories in old newspapers of children waiting outside of stores for adults buying cigarettes, pleading for the cards inside of the packages. Aggressive incidents even included children breaking into stores and stealing the cards. One word was repeatedly used in such tales as children were called ‘nuisances.’
The ultimate bit of irony, I suppose, is that some cards even depicted some of this behavior. The 1889 Duke Postage Stamps set, for example, was a series of tobacco cards that also included postage stamps from around the world. The theme of the set was really about mail delivery around the globe. But a few of the cards pictured young card collectors themselves in pursuit of the cards. They are among the earliest such cards to picture early card collecting.
Now, those cards are not known to many collectors. But with the set listed in the American Card Catalog (N85), they are certainly known to many collectors of 19th century issues.
However, a lesser known issue also exists when it comes to the depiction of early card collecting.
About the Card Fiends Trade Cards
Early card collecting was not only limited to those Duke Postage Stamp tobacco cards. The hobby was also spotlighted in a set of trade cards, too.
Believed to have been issued sometime in the 19th century, these cards were titled “Card Fiends” and pictured, well, people that were crazy about cards.
To the aesthetics, these were single-ink cards, printed in red, blue, or black. They included cartoon sketches of subjects that were quite well done, along with a rectangular box at the bottom, which is where a business could insert their stamp or printed advertisement. As is the case with most other trade cards, these were printed on a thinner card stock. Some cards have the rectangular box filled in with an advertisement while others went unused and were stock cards awaiting advertisement. Backs of the cards I have seen have been blank. However, some likely are known with print on the back as advertisers often used that area to add an advertisement.
To date, I have identified a total of five cards in the set. However, given that the cards are fairly rare, it would not surprise me to see a checklist slightly larger than that as I am not sure I have personally seen the entire release. Two of the five known cards do not focus on trading cards. One is titled, “The Shopping Fiend,” picturing a woman that is fond of shopping. The other is titled, “The Old Original Fiend,” and pictures a man playing poker or another playing card game.
The other three cards, however, are dedicated to card collecting.
The most common one I have seen is the one called, “The Juvenile Fiend.” That card pictures a young child holding some cards with his other hand out asking for more. The subtitle on this card (“Mister, please give me a card”) focuses on that early topic of children pestering adults for cards.
A second card pictures card collecting from the view of the printers that created the cards. Called, “The Publishing Fiend who Runs the Mill,” this card pictures a printer holding a bag of money with a machine that is churning out all sorts of cards with varied subjects.
The cards were quite profitable for printers as circulation sometimes ran into the millions, depending on the specific cards. And given that so many tobacco and candy companies printed cards, that could have been a substantial part of a printer’s business. Thus, the bag of money is quite appropriate.
Issued in the 19th century, the “Publishing Fiend” card was definitely used for promotional purposes, with one such card inside the online archive of the state of California using the blank space to tout a masquerade ball in 1884.
The third related hobby card pictures an older man as the solicitor for cards. That one is titled, “The Old Gent Fiend Who Wants a Few for His Little Girl, You Know.” It pictures an elderly man slightly resembling Abraham Lincoln, with a pocket full and handful of cards, apparently seeking more, with the inclination that they are for a child and not for him.
Pricing and Rarity
I have observed that these cards are quite rare. Even in large marketplaces, such as eBay, they are rarely offered for sale.
That perceived rarity could be a bit deceptive. While the cards are formally titled, ‘Card Fiends,’ I do not always see them advertised as such. They are often lumped in with the large number of trade cards in online listings with rather generic titles. That can make it difficult to search for them with a specific name or title. Still, I have rarely encountered these cards and they appear to be quite tough to locate.
Despite that, like most trade issues, they are often priced very low, typically in the $10-$20 range. Savvy dealers, though, understanding the unique significance of them certainly can command more.