When collectors think about the earliest baseball cards, tobacco cards are often the first ones cited. While some trade cards technically existed before tobacco issues, many of them did not feature real, professional players. That is part of the reason why collectors have gravitated more towards tobacco sets as a sort of ‘go to’ in terms of pre-war issues.
Tobacco cards are, in a nutshell, those that were issued with tobacco products. Most commonly, they were found inside packages of cigarettes. Many of the cards (particularly, the earliest ones from the late 19th century) are rare today. However, many issues are also relatively easy to find, which indicates that quantities of the production than some is probably higher than you might think.
More and more collectors are finding their way to tobacco cards. Some of that is due to the coming of age of many former collectors that grew up in the heyday of the 1980s and 1990s when card collecting was incredibly popular. Those collectors now have more disposable income and even many that left the hobby have returned. But that they have so dramatically gone to tobacco cards in particular is an interesting trend.
Add it all up and, more than a century later, tobacco cards are hotter than ever.
That is evident in the demand and the pricing for them. The cards are routinely bought and sold, and prices are certainly at unprecedented levels. Honus Wagner’s T206 card, pound for pound, has been the most expensive in the hobby for some time. But even that card is at record heights when benchmarking it against itself. A PSA 5 (MC) sold in 2016 for more than $3.1 million, setting a new record. That was more than $1 million more than when the card sold only a few years ago in 2013. Several others have demanded six figures more routinely than before. But it’s not just the super expensive cards doing well, either.
One card that is well on its way to pricing some collectors out of the market, for example, is the green background Cobb found in the same T206 set as the Wagner. Cobb’s cards have all been on an upward trend, but the green background issue (one of four cards that he has in the set) has really been on the move. A few years ago, low-end copies of the card could be had in the $700-$800 range. That price has generally doubled or, in some cases for cards with great eye appeal, even tripled. Values for non-poor versions of the card have risen exponentially and we’re seeing that, albeit to lesser degrees, for cards of other Hall of Famers, too, like Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, and Walter Johnson.
Interestingly enough, while tobacco prices have soared, prices for many caramel cards have cooled. Caramel cards are still widely collected, mind you. But they haven’t taken off in popularity they way tobacco cards have in recent years. That is interesting for two reasons, in particular.
First, some of the earlier caramel/candy cards were still produced at the same time that many tobacco sets were. Things like the popular E95, and E96 sets (as well as the rest of the E90s cards, for that matter) were printed around the same time as the popular T205 and T206 cards, so we’re talking about, in some cases, stuff that has relatively the same release dates. Second, by and large, early candy/caramel cards are much rarer than tobacco issues. Despite that, collectors have largely flocked to the latter.
Availability is certainly a reason for that. It’s just much easier to buy, say, a T205 card than it is one from the E92 set. By way of comparison, PSA has graded only a little more than 2,000 E92 cards. T205? They’ve graded more than 38,000. Obviously, the rarity of some sets vs. some others isn’t quite as disparate. But, as a whole, tobacco cards are much more plentiful than early candy issues. More collectors are pursuing them and, despite the rarity aspect, prices on tobacco cards are pointed sharply up.
In card collecting, things tend to come and go. Ungraded junk wax era stuff that once had strong values has sunk. And unless graded, most of the early 1980s rookies that used to be quite valuable are generally worth little these days. Even prices on a lot of older post-war vintage seems to have largely flatlined, with the exception of Mickey Mantle cards, rarer stuff, and graded cards. But more than 100 years later, the industry for pre-war tobacco cards has never seemed better.