This three-part series will take a look at the early history of tobacco cards from the pre-war era.
It is often said that the earliest baseball cards were trade card issues. While that is technically correct, the hobby really started growing its roots in the era of tobacco cards.
Tobacco cards featuring baseball players generally got their start in the 1880s. While we focus on baseball cards as collectors, it’s important to note that tobacco cards for all sorts of subjects existed. Cards depicting boxers were popular but, outside of the sports card arena, there were early cards of subjects such as women and actresses, too. Baseball players on tobacco cards were just one of many types of subjects found.
And while the concept was a new one, though, it took off in a hurry.
The First Tobacco Cards
Early tobacco cards from the 19th century looked a lot different than cards of today. Most of the first ones from sets like the N172 Old Judge series used real photographs attached to cardboard backings. They weren’t all like that (including Old Judge’s N167 series), but the majority of the earlier tobacco cards were.
If you think about it, these were really miniature pictures. And fittingly, that is how they were often described if you read old newspaper articles. The term ‘baseball cards’ was rarely used at that point and you often saw these described as ‘baseball pictures’ or ‘cigarette pictures.’
These cards are usually referred to as tobacco cards. But, nailing it down a bit more specifically, most were inserts in cigarette packages. Some cards were issued with other tobacco products, such as scrap tobacco or cigars. But the vast majority of them were distributed with cigarette brands.
These old cards using real pictures, when sharp, provide striking images. And that’s the case even though many were merely taken of players in photography studios. But now, well over 100 years later, the primary problem with them is that many have faded over time. Because of that, cards with clear images are in high demand. And, depending on the type of wear sustained, even damaged cards with clear images can fetch a premium over cards with a better technical grade but with less clear pictures.
A Change in Style
While the N172 Old Judge cards and other similar issues used real pictures, it didn’t take long for the distributors of cards to make them look a little more appealing. That included making the cards in color as opposed the drab sepia tone that most of them had.
This change was seen in many sets, including the popular Champions’ series cards came about in the late 1880s. These colorful cards were lithographs instead of actual pictures. And they were so well done that the style/layout has been copied in even modern sets issued in recent years.
Among sets involving many different subjects, Allen & Ginter’s N28 (Tim Keefe card on left) and N29 Champions sets are viewed as among the most popular 19th century sets of all time.
These sets sought to identify top athletes across a variety of sports. While baseball was a key in those sets, as I wrote here, many more subjects were covered. they also included all sorts of other athletes, including boxers, wrestlers and more. Some of the sports, such as rifle shooting and billiards are avoided. But cards featuring legendary figures like Buffalo Bill and, as pictured here, Annie Oakley, remain quite popular and are priced almost as aggressively as some of the baseball players in the two sets.
Allen & Ginter wasn’t the only company producing this set. Goodwin’s N162 Champions set (Cap Anson card on right) had a similar concept with more dramatic imagery. And while Kimball’s N184 set didn’t have the same type of artwork, those are among the rarest of the champions issues.
A Temporary Respite
Tobacco cards continued into the early 1890s but then took a significant break with few issues being created. One of the exceptions to that rule was Mayo’s N300 set, which is distinctive for its black borders. The cards are rare these days and even low-grade issues can sell for a few hundred dollars.
But in general, the tobacco card industry was drying up. Part of that was due to a merger, causing a lack of competition (the cards had been used, in part, to stimulate sales by companies) as well as the backlash companies received for including the cards in tobacco products. Many argued that this was causing children to take up smoking and, at best, they were becoming a public nuisance by pestering adults and storekeepers for the cards. Children were also seen gambling with the cards, which was viewed as another problem.
Now, how many were turning to tobacco use is up for debate. For example, there were reported instances of children robbing stores, removing all of the cards from cigarette packs, and leaving the tobacco behind as if it was worthless to them.
But in any event, many adults viewed the cards as bad because it encouraged smoking and gambling. Public pressure was likely at least part of the reason that in the late 1800s, a ban was placed on companies, preventing them from including tobacco inserts.
However, the ban was lifted in a few years’ time and by the early 1900s, tobacco cards were back.