As the sport of baseball was introduced in the 1800s, baseball cards didn’t take too long to follow. When exactly the first cards were printed depends on your interpretation of the word ‘cards’. But the earliest cards are generally recognized by most collectors as beginning in the 1860s. By the end of the century, those cards had been through quite a few changes. Here’s a brief look at the evolution of the 19th Century cards.
Trade cards are generally considered to be the first true baseball cards of the 19th Century. The Peck & Snyder cards of the late 1860s and early 1870s are often hailed as the earliest ones. They featured real images of teams and were printed as advertisements for Peck and Snyder’s sporting goods store but trade cards quickly evolved in the 1870s and 1880s.
Soon, those cards featured colorful cartoon like images, usually of generic figures. They were also different from the Peck and Snyder cards in that many were used for more than one company. Stock cards were printed with baseball images and then various businesses would use them as a sort of business card, adding their specific information onto a portion of the card that was usually blank – either on the front or back.
Trade cards would continue to be printed into the 1900s but their heyday was really the 1880s. Many issues are difficult to date but are considered to be 1880s issues.
Real Photograph Tobacco Issues
19th Century cards got an overhaul with several series’ of cards soon featuring real photographs of players. Pictures on these cards generally had a sepia-style tone to them. The most prominent of these cards was the massive Goodwin-created N172 Old Judge set beginning in or around 1886, but others got into the act, too. These cards were printed for other cigarette/tobacco brands such as the S.F. Hess Cigarettes, Gypsy Queen, Kalamazoo Bats, and others.
These cards often actually included the pictures affixed to cardboard as opposed to cards that had the images printed directly onto the cardboard. As a result, sometimes these cards will be rebacked. Rebacking is simply removing the old cardboard backing if it suffered damage (i.e. was glued into a scrapbook) and affixing a new backing to it that is not damaged.
These cards, unfortunately are prone to fading as the images are not as clear as they once were. The amount of fading that has occurred varies and cards with stronger images are more desirable. But these cards are often pursued as they provide real images of some of the earliest ballplayers.
Color Lithographic Tobacco Cards
In stark contrast to the real photograph issues were color lithographic cards. Instead of actual pictures, these 19th Century cards featured lithographic artwork of players. Many companies, including Duke, Goodwin, and Kimball printed these types of cards in the late 1880s. However, the most popular ones may be Allen & Ginter’s N28 and N29 cards, issued in 1888 and 1889, respectively.
Many of these sets followed a common theme. They were multi-sport sets and featured world champions in all sorts of sports and activities. Baseball cards were generally the primary focus as players such as Cap Anson, King Kelly, Charles Comiskey, Tim Keefe, and others, were featured. A few other sports had notable cards. For example, the N162 Goodwin set featured what is often cited as the first football card, picturing Harry Beecher. But for the most part, it’s the baseball cards that most collectors are pursuing these days.
The artwork on these cards was so noteworthy that some issues are still mimicked today in recent sets.
The 1890s included a mix of issues with no particular theme representing the decade.
Some of these late 19th Century sets utilized sepia-toned images. Others stuck with the color lithographic cards. But a new distinctly different card was introduced as well with the N300 Mayo set. Produced in the mid 1890s, these cards utilized real images but had a unique black border as well as backs that were entirely black. These black-bordered cards were unique and stood out from most of the other 1800s cards.
Other types of issues existed, too. For example, the 1896 Mayo game cards were colorful die-cut issues. There was also a continuation of cabinet cards (larger photographic images with a cardboard backing), which had been printed earlier in the century. Some cabinets were sepia-toned while others, like the N142 Duke cabinets, were in color.
It is also worth noting that fewer cards depicting real players were printed in the 1890s. Some sets, such as those mentioned here, were printed. But there was a dearth of cards until the 1900s arrived.
Baseball cards got their start in the 1800s and collectors experienced quite a few changes in the design of the issues as card collecting started becoming popular.