The American Card Catalog is the most important book in the history of card collecting. I’ll listen to the argument that publications such as price guides really brought collecting to the forefront and helped establish it as a lucrative venture. But for my money, the American Card Catalog is tops in terms of importance for, particularly, older cards.
First created in 1939 as The United States Card Collectors Catalog by noted collector Jefferson Burdick, it was officially called the American Card Catalog in subsequent editions, beginning in 1946 and ending in 1960.
The book’s significance cannot be understated and its greatest praise, perhaps, is that the catalog’s designations for cards (i.e. T205, E90) are still used to this day and likely to be used for a very long time. But having gone nearly 60 years without an update, the book could certainly use a refreshing.
This wouldn’t be updating it for the sake of updating it, mind you. I’m not a fan of things such as nonsensical software updates just as much as the next guy. However, there are very real justifications for such an update to this important book.
Updating the Book was Burdick’s Original Intent
Some would say that the book should be left as it is and not updated. But here’s the thing — even Burdick himself disagreed with that sentiment. The book was always intended to be updated and the book’s original author made no secret of that.
Throughout his book, Burdick referenced later editions, realizing that the book would be continually updated. Further, he oversaw several updates himself. After the 1939 publication, he printed an updated one in 1946. Then there was another one in 1953. And then again in 1960 and 1967 following his death. It was obvious that the Burdick and others felt that every seven years was sufficient for its upkeep.
Regardless of the years in between, the point is pretty clear here. Burdick always intended for the book to be updated.
Change Outdated Categorizations
While Burdick’s book had its own cataloging system, collectors have informally changed some of his original classifications over the years. For example, Burdick initially classified N-Cards as Central and South American Tobacco cards. Today, though, collectors use the N-Card designation for 19th Century cards, such as the early N28/N29 Allen & Ginter issues. If you look up N28 in Burdick’s American Card Catalog, you get something called Falcon Calvo Old Argentine Scenes.
Burdick did, of course, recognize those Allen & Ginter sets. However, they are simply called ’28’ and ’29’ as he did not give tobacco insert cards from the 19th Century a letter designation. Updating the book would allow us to modernize a few categorizations that have ‘changed’ in the minds of collectors, such as that one.
While Burdick was a master collector who knew of nearly every type of card under the sun, several things slipped by him. None of that was through any fault of his own, mind you. But no one can no know everything. That’s especially true when you consider that card collecting wasn’t nearly as advanced in Burdick’s time and that he didn’t even have the internet to aid him.
The American Card Catalog has many sports sets but missed several sets, which are generally classified as uncataloged. Updating the book would be a great way to add these cards and give them a formal catalog designation.
New Information is Known
Similarly, an update could fix some uncertainties that Burdick had when writing the book. While he did a tremendous job in the pre-internet age of tracking information down, some things eluded him.
For example, some of the dates that Burdick mentioned in his book were questionable. But over the years, we’ve found more information that he didn’t have at the time. One of those examples is seen in the E285 Rittenhouse Candy set. Burdick classified that set as an E-Card issue that was printed prior to 1933. But we have since come to learn it is likely a 1933 issue, which would have made it an R-Card as a slightly later issue.
Burdick was unsure of the exact date of the set as he merely said it was from ‘about 1930’ in his book. But with this new information, it should actually be in a different classification. And even if you can’t stand to fiddle with pre-established classifications, if nothing else, the book could at least be updated to reflect the correct dating.
In addition to the questions and some typos, Burdick also had a few things in the book that were flat out incorrect. An update would be a great chance to make the book a little more accurate and clear up things like inaccurate dates, checklisted number of cards, etc.
This is probably the least important thing to me as someone that doesn’t use price guides much. I generally find that things like past eBay and auction sales are a much better barometer of accurate pricing.
Still, it’s hard not to be distracted when you flip through the pages of Burdick’s book and see cards marked at five cents and ten cents.
Obviously, prices have risen on these cards and, even if I wouldn’t personally use the book as a price guide, it would be great to give collectors some kind of reference point. Heck, that actually might encourage its usage by newer collectors just getting into pre-war and vintage cards. Oftentimes, even experienced collectors of older cards need help trying to get a handle on its pricing.
While I’m not sure it would ever be a great idea to use it as a price guide, it could follow Burdick’s original intent, which was to provide some sort of rough estimate. That would help collectors at least know if they’ve got a $100 card or a $10,000 card on their hands.
Re-Introduce it to the Hobby
While the book is incredibly useful and something I personally reference quite a bit, I can’t tell you how few collectors even have a copy for any number of reasons. Many collectors, of course, only collect modern cards and wouldn’t have a need or it. But even collectors of vintage cards struggle with its usefulness. Sure, they may use the classifications when referencing cards but many probably don’t see a reason to own a copy of the book themselves.
Updating it would allow for a re-introduction to the hobby and you could make a huge deal out of it. Even modern collectors could be targeted. Current card companies today are still recycling things like the Allen & Ginter cards produced by Topps. How about an updated book with a short commentary on the original A&G cards? Make it relevant. Make it a big deal because it is a big deal. I don’t know that you need to update it annually, but freshen it up every few years. The book is far too important to be put on a shelf only to be forgotten.
Put modern advertisements in it. Blasphemy, you say? Even Burdick’s American Card Catalogs included advertisements.
I know that many purists will hate this idea. Changing the minds of older collectors can be a difficult proposition. Some will find it silly and others will question the need for it. And truthfully, the hobby will survive with an update or without one. But I’d argue that the further down this rabbit hole we go of treating it as a relic instead of the useful book it actually is, the less newer collectors will recognize it as the landmark publication it should be. Keep it relevant so that it survives to the next generation of collectors.