In the 1880s and 1890s, the earliest tobacco sports card sets were hitting the market. Along with the creation of these cards, tobacco companies wanted to reward their best customers. One of the ways they did that was through the distribution of premium albums. These albums usually included pictures of all of the cards in the set, often against some sort of decorative backdrop. They were not created for all tobacco sets, of course. But some popular ones include the A16 and A17 Allen & Ginter Albums (which correspond with the popular Allen & Ginter Champions sets), the A36 Goodwin Album (for the N162 Goodwin Champions set), and the A42 Kimball Album (corresponding with the N184 Kimball Champions set), among several others.
Note that these were different from other types of more generic albums, which were often given away to collectors. Many of those simply included mostly blank pages where collectors could glue their cards in an effort to collect an entire set. Think of them as early three-ring binders of a sort. The premium albums were more like a coffee table or display book and usually required collectors to redeem a certain number of coupons to receive one.
Some collectors kept the albums intact, which was probably the original intent. However, others removed the pages and cut the cards out. Appropriately, these are referred to today as album cuts. While the album cuts do have some value and are collected, they generally worth much less than the real cards themselves. At the end of the day, after all, these are really pictures of cards.
Unfortunately, album cuts have caused a great deal of confusion for collectors that are unfamiliar with them. Often, they are sold as legitimate cards that were packaged with tobacco products when that isn’t the case. Sometimes it’s a situation where knowledgeable sellers trying to get over on unsuspecting buyers. Other times, the sellers themselves are completely unaware of these issues and sell the album cuts as real cards unknowingly.
In addition to the albums and as a brief aside, some sets also had pictures of the cards printed on advertising posters. These, too, have sometimes been cut out and passed off as real cards.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to tell the difference between album/poster cuts and actual cards if you’re looking to buy legitimate 19th Century tobacco cards.
One way to spot the difference between album/poster cuts and real cards is the stock or the card’s thickness. As you might suspect, the album and poster cards weren’t on terribly thick stock. They are generally pretty easy to distinguish between the real cards as they are significantly thinner. They aren’t paper thin but certainly aren’t as thick as the real deal.
If you’re unsure of what the stock should feel like, be sure to compare it against other known cards from the set. Most 19th Century tobacco cards are thicker than the 20th Century issues, so don’t simply compare them to cards such as T205 or T206, which are noticeably thinner. Your best bet is to compare it against another card from that same release.
The backs are another good way to differentiate between the types of cards. Legitimate tobacco cards (at least from issues that had corresponding premium albums) usually had a checklist or an advertisement for the tobacco company.
However, backs of cards cut from posters or albums will either be blank or, in some cases of the albums, possibly have some random text/images on the reverse from what was on the side of the page. I am not aware of any album/poster cuts that printed the same backs on them as appeared on the authentic cards.
One caveat here is a skinned card. Some authentic cards may have been skinned (the back removed) or exhibit a lot of paper loss on the back. This is sometimes the case with cards that were glued into scrapbooks and subsequently removed, causing the loss of paper on the back.
That can make it difficult to tell and often, deceptive sellers will offer the blank-backed album cut cards as authentic skinned cards.
Design on Front
Finally, the front designs of some of the album/poster cuts can help you distinguish between those and regular cards.
For example, the real N28 Allen & Ginter cards have the Allen & Ginter names at the bottom of them. The album cuts instead simply have the player’s name. The N88 Duke Terrors of America set, which features boys participating in baseball and a variety of activities, can be slightly different, too. Album cuts for this set have a pale greenish shadow along some of the edges of the cards. When poorly cut, traces of it can be found on some of those cuts as well.
Keep in mind, this isn’t always a telltale sign, either. As an example, many collectors not wanting the Allen & Ginter name on the bottom trimmed that portion off of authentic cards. Still, you can use the other factors mentioned above as good ways to help you compare the types of cards.