We mostly refer to the boom of the American tobacco cards as coming in the early 1900s. Numerous sets were produced in the 1909-12 time period. However, the start of the cards actually came much earlier than that.
The 1880s is where most cigarette cards got their beginnings. But despite being very popular with collectors, tobacco companies were very interested in cutting ties with them. That may seem surprising. After all, most were used as inserts in cigarette packages as an incentive for consumers to buy particular brands. The plan was working, too, with the companies doing quite well. But in 1890, the American Tobacco Company was formed as a merger between several tobacco companies. That effectively ended the need to compete with each other. And soon after that, cigarette cards began to disappear.
Still, if the cards were popular with consumers, why not continue to produce them, anyway? The answer is pretty simple — cost.
The cards obviously cost money to produce. Good money. And an 1891 article from a relatively small newspaper I recently stumbled upon sheds some light on the situation. Specifically, it even gives us some details on the expensive production of these cards.
The February 6, 1891 edition of the Anaconda Standard out of Montana is where the situation is outlined. And while we tend to focus on the baseball cards that were produced, the article reminds us that those were not the only ones missed by consumers and young boys. “No more swappings of six ballet girls for one Indian chief,” the article bemoans. “Nor of ten musical instruments for one bantamweight.” Cigarette cards, of all sorts of topics and subjects, were affected here.
The companies that banned together, including the likes of Duke, Allen & Ginter, Kimball, Kinney, and Goodwin, were considered the Tobacco Trust, the Consolidated Companies, or any one of a number of monikers. To young boys in pursuit of these cards, they likely went by the name of Lucifer on some occasions.
Children and adults alike had collected the cards. However, it’s tales of young boys, particularly, that are the ones referenced the most. Boys were cited for robberies of stores involving cigarettes to secure the cards, gambling with said cards, or endlessly pestering adults on street corners for them. When it came to removing the inserts, you can bet they were none too pleased. Non-collecting adults, on the other hand, felt different. Many were annoyed by the collecting habits of the children and some even went as far to try to enact laws in their towns to cease the trading of them in one form or another. Some of that was because they feared children were taking up smoking while others were against the gambling aspect (through popular games, such as flipping for cards) or disapproved of some of the images on them. To them, the removal of the inserts was a win.
The cigarette makers, by the way, were in no real hurry to explain themselves or the disappearance of the popular cards. The reporter for the Anaconda story expressed great difficulty in getting any on the record to discuss the matter, equating it to trying to ‘wheedle the keeper of a privy seal’ (i.e. trying to convince the holder of private documents to release them). One manager affiliated with the cigarette companies explained why on the condition of anonymity.
“We do not want our business spoken of when it can be helped. To be quoted in newspaper articles only causes discussion and criticism that we can very well afford to get along without.”
But despite the societal conflict that existed between those for and against the cards, it’s clear that the tobacco brands had enough of producing the cards. And as stated, the reason for that was largely tied to the cost.
The Anaconda article tells us exactly how expensive these cards and premiums associated with them were. Albums with pictures of the cards were often given as said premiums in exchange for a certain amount of coupons from a particular product. The article cites that the cost of most of these albums was at least fifty cents, roughly the equivalent of $14.07 by today’s standards, according to this website.
Now, that isn’t a ridiculous amount. But consider that these albums were given away for free. And while some consumers may have bought a little more of a particular product to secure one, a company probably lost some customers to a rival brand doing the same thing. Plus, many were merely buying the product as normally as they always did. Giving these albums away certainly ate into the companies’ profits.
Then there was the more substantial cost of the cards.
In all, the anonymous cigarette company representative cited the cost to produce 1,000 of the tobacco cards was between $1 and $5 (it is implied but unconfirmed if the cost for the actual artwork was included in that figure). That comes out to a small per-card amount under one cent. But keep in mind, the companies were producing many of these cards. The representative stated they were bought by the millions. For one million cards, the cost to the cigarette company would have been between $1,000 and $5,000. Using that same calculator linked above, that gives us a cost of about $28,100 to $140,700 by today’s standards.
Not exactly chump change.
The companies were doing quite well financially and they obviously could afford to churn out these kinds of cards when it was necessary to compete with each other. That is evidenced by the fact that they thrived while doing just that.
Their profits, while diminished, were still considerable. And the success of tobacco cards was acknowledged by the anonymous cigarette company representative. “The day we began putting the actresses pictures in the cigarettes was the biggest day of our lives.”
But times had changed with the merger and cutting the costs out entirely was no doubt a welcome opportunity.