Between low supply issues and bulk buying by resellers, card collectors might think they have it difficult today. But collecting today is a breeze compared to the difficulties of buying product in the pre-internet days.
And if you think card buying in the 1970s or 1980s was complex, just imagine what the very earliest collectors went through to secure needed cards. Forget even locating the cards — the earliest collectors often didn’t even have a list of cards that were in a particular set to know what to find.
The topic found its way into my head late at night when I was sifting through the first American Card Catalog. That publication authored by Jefferson Burdick was the ultimate resource to early collectors. And while some of his alphanumeric designations have become obsolete (quick, what’s the ACC designation for the c1909 Niagara Baking set?) others like T205 or T206 are absolutely critical since we still refer to those sets by those combinations.
Contrary to what some might believe, Burdick’s catalogs weren’t merely an accounting of sets with estimated prices. While he didn’t have much to say about each particular set, the books also included commentary about a great many things relevant to collectors. And in that initial 1939 offering, one of the topics broached by Burdick was about the difficulty in finding cards.
Sure, it isn’t easy to find every card on your want list these days. Even with the built-in advantage of the internet and major card shows, collectors can search for years to find a particularly rare issue. But for the most part, collecting today is made much easier with online dealers and sites like eBay. Even social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly important for collector-to-collector sales. In the 1930s and earlier, that simply didn’t exist.
Burdick, who collected from about 1910 until the time of his death in 1963, realized the difficulty collectors were having with finding cards. That was a real problem to him and, certainly, even a source of frustration. He, along with others, really wanted this hobby to grow. And while it certainly had by the 1930s, he would have realized that collectors would ultimately stick with it if things were a little easier on them. Finding any cards, of course, wouldn’t have been the problem for many. They could be had in packages of gum or with other food products like bread. In the 1920s, there were strip cards, which would have been available. Postcards were very much collectible and some publications even offered cards. The real problem collectors had was in filling holes in sets or finding specific cards in general.
Burdick talked a little about this in a separate section on pricing. There, he referenced the fact that some collectors would get into bidding wars of a sort with others if they were in hot pursuit of the same card. After all, who knows when that same card would come available again? If you were a few cards away from completing, say, a Goudey set, you could keep buying bubble gum until you found it or you could try to buy the card from someone else. And, as Burdick himself acknowledged, he was not aware of any full-time card dealers at the time. While the thrill of pulling a final card needed from a pack would have been exhilarating, suffice to say, most collectors probably didn’t want to suffer the all-but-certain pain to reach that point.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have many solutions to the problem of finding rare or difficult cards. But realizing it was, indeed, a real issue, he at least offered a few suggestions.
Writing to the Companies Issuing the Cards
Burdick’s first suggestion, admittedly, was not a great one. He fully acknowledged a lack of success in this area. Nevertheless, one suggestion he offered was contacting the companies that distributed the cards.
According to him, that usually failed. ‘Very few’ of the cards, in his words, could be obtained by contacting the companies directly or even the printers themselves. Burdick went so far to call it ‘an absolute waste of time,’ with the exception of a few of the more recent candy and gum sets that were printed in the 1930s. He did acknowledge that many of the companies actually did respond. However, other than a polite reply, he found this method to be ineffective.
That wasn’t necessarily because the companies didn’t want to help collectors in search of missing cards. Rather, they simply didn’t have any to distribute. That’s because, according to him, the general practice of companies was to fully exhaust their supply of cards. They had no interest in keeping them around and were anxious to get rid of them probably because, well, they cost money to produce. Letting them go to waste wasn’t really a great option.
Nevertheless, Burdick did indicate there were occasional moments of success. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention the most famous of these instances surrounding the Nap Lajoie cards that Goudey issued in 1934 after collectors requested the missing card from the 1933 series. But he does state that collectors, particularly in Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Chicago might have success with local issuers.
A large problem for collectors is that there simply weren’t dealers around — at least, according to Burdick, no exclusive ones.
Today, there are not only full-time card dealers, but dealers that specialize in particular issues. Back then, however, any card sellers would have been operating as a small side business.
Burdick did have a suggestion, though. He recommended that collectors should consider dealers in “antiques, old books, curios, and Americaniana” as de facto card dealers. He noted that, while not specializing in cards, they often came into contact with collections. It is quite possible that some of the great finds first found their way into the hands of these sorts of sellers.
Burdick not only encouraged collectors to reach out to those sorts of folks but also indicated that he hoped his book would get into their hands (presumably to make them more knowledgeable about the hobby), so that they could better assist collectors in need of particular issues.
Burdick saved what was probably his best advice for last. His parting words suggested collectors should advertise their needs.
His specific commentary in this section was that placing want ads in local newspapers was a great way to uncover many cards that were right in the neighborhood or vicinity. If that was unsuccessful, another method was to place advertisements in other types of hobby collector magazines.
We know from records of early newspapers that many collectors did just that. There are plenty of old accounts of collectors placing small advertisements as sort of a beacon in the hopes of finding cards or even other collectors.
Similarly, while not mentioned by Burdick, a source of finding current cards would be looking for manufacturer’s own advertisements of new releases, which were often packaged with their products. For some issues, like the Fro-Joy Babe Ruth cards that were only available for a very limited time, that would have been critical to not missing new cards.
Finding cards at times today may seem difficult. But collectors decades earlier could only hope for the types of opportunities we have to build our collections.