Eventually they would be sold with more kid-oriented products like caramels and bubble gum but 110 years ago, if you wanted a picture of a professional baseball player (and who wouldn’t before color magazines, TV or even radio?), you had to have access to tobacco, or at least someone who used it.
When the American Tobacco Company’s massive promotion began in 1909, word traveled quickly. A lot of men smoked and when kids saw the colorful little cards inside, they went bananas.
The reaction was just what tobacco executives were counting on when they launched the massive promotion.
In fact, as we’ve written before (here and here), the quest by kids to collect tobacco-sponsored “baseball pictures” created a firestorm in some areas.
Kids usually got the cards by bugging the heck out of adults who smoked or could buy cigarettes for them but sometimes the merchants caved in to the demand from baseball mad youth of the early 20th century and sold the cigarette packs with cards directly to them.
That was a no-no in North Carolina.
I recently found an article in the September 22, 1909 edition of a Charlotte newspaper that chronicled the story a local merchant who wound up in front of the mayor on charges of selling tobacco to minors. The newspaperman’s words painted quite a picture: “12 to 15” kids in court, with three testifying that Abram Rockwell had indeed sold them the smokes in violation of state law.
Interestingly, though, the writer’s brief story paints a bit of a sympathetic picture of Rockwell, an immigrant who the writer asserted was being railroaded.
“The mayor only examined three boys and of this number but one confessed to the purchase for the purpose of smoking,” he wrote, making it pretty clear that it wasn’t tobacco that was the big draw for kids, who were more interested in collecting the images of Cobb, Lajoie, Mathewson, Johnson and their colleagues.
Rockwell wound up bound over to a court date and with a $100 bond ($2819.32 today) and the mayor promised to look into other merchants who were supposedly also putting Sweet Caporals in the hands of young collectors. The city of Charlotte was taking it all pretty seriously.
None of the hubbub deterred American Tobacco or its brands from continuing to distribute cards in cigarette packs for two more years, something we’re all pretty thankful for in 2019.
Here’s another story from a Pennyslvania newspaper in 1964 in which one of those 1909-1911 era youngsters recalled the methods he used to collect all kinds of tobacco cards at the time.
Those first person recollections are truly rare and they illustrate that collectors a century ago loved their cards as much as we do today.