The history of boxing cards rivals baseball even if its a part of the hobby that’s not quite as mainstream today.
Beautiful, chromolithographed boxing cards were among the earliest trading cards in America and the UK; excellent examples today fetch high prices in the collector’s market.
The practice of distributing, collecting, and trading boxing cards began around the time of the Civil War, and flourished along with the growth of the cigarette industry, since the cards were distributed in cigarette packages, giving shape to the soft paper packages the cigarettes were sold in. This resulted in higher sales for cigarette brands that included the most popular boxers. Later, trading cards were sold by themselves in vending machines, and still later included bubble gum to appeal to children.
The very first boxing card was produced independently, issued by the photographer Charles D. Fredericks before 1870. It was a picture of US former heavyweight champion, John C. Heenan. It wasn’t until 1886 that the first set of boxing cards was issued, with the backing of Goodwin and Co.: poses of boxers Jim Carney, Jack McAuliffe, and Jem Smith appeared with Old Judge Cigarettes. Until 1895, many cigarette companies included cards of boxers and many other sports and popular figures of the day. Boxing cards surged and waned in popularity over the next 80 years.
Artwork in the 19th Century trading cards was robust, romantic, with sensuality in the images. The recently developed process of chromolithography allowed pictures to be vividly colored and immediate, especially in the boxing cards. Photographs and artist rendered images alike were colored beautifully using a multiple pass process (color lithography) to create each color. The precision achieved and the attention to detail make these 1800s boxing cards some of the most esthetically pleasing and artistic works from the period.
Boxers were most often shown in a ‘muscle pose,’ or with arms crossed before a muscular (shirtless) chest. Some shots were of two players, in a staged fight stance that sometimes seems stilted and posed. Sophisticated, almost modern layering of images, and juxtaposition of the main image along with smaller images packed a lot of information into the space of a small card. The Max Baer card, for Sport Kings Gum, for example, shows Baer in a pensive pugilistic pose filling the main picture and a silhouette of boxers in a ring across the bottom.
A Patsy Cardiff card, probably from 1910, for the Kimball company, illustrates this layering effect perfectly. His handsome head and massive shoulders float upon the horizon above a miniature match below. A 1948 Leaf card of Jack Dempsey has an almost psychedelic use of color, and a 1910 Mecca card of Jack Johnson captures an uncommon gentleness, subtle, realistic color, and a colonnaded arena complete with chandeliers.
Boxing cards were popular over the course of a century, but they never had the popularity of baseball cards, for example. By 1971, the practice had all but died out, even though there have been isolated issues of boxing cards since. The first renascence was in the early 90s, when three companies issues boxing card sets: Kayo, All World, and Ring Lords. Mass production of most of these cards resulted in them being so plentiful that they never reached collector status.
The boxing card emerged again in 2006 with cards of Mike Tyson and Leon Spinks by the Topps brand, in their Allen & Ginter’s homage series. Issues in more recent years include the Co-Signers series, autographed photos of boxers and other famous athletes. Ring Kings is issuing a new series depicting the heavyweight title as it progressed from John L. Sullivan to Jack Dempsey, with more on the horizon.
Don’t count the boxing card out just yet.
Boxing cards on eBay