Exhibit Supply Company was the first organization to ever distribute sports cards that were not tied to peripheral products. Previously, sports cards were often part of a promotion or even had coupons that one could clip out of the card itself. The cards produced by the Chicago-based company were sold merely for the novelty of collecting them and reading the biographies or information for the subject of the card.
The novelty of Exhibit Supply Company’s product did not end with its new product though. The delivery method was also an innovation for its time. Exhibit advertised to arcade owners, store owners, bar owners, and basically everyone that owned a high traffic venue, their ‘amusement machines’. The idea was that Exhibit Supply Company would sell an amusement device, such as a fortune-teller, scale, etc. This device would bring the venue more customers and Exhibit Supply Company would profit from refilling and maintaining the device. This method was employed as the primary method of ESC’s distribution of their cards through the sale of card vending machines. Some collectors refer to them rightfully as “arcade cards”.
Though the company did profit from the sale of the machines, its real profit was realized by selling the refills for these devices, due to the extreme popularity of the cards, and the sheer volume that each machine went through. The cards were originally sold for a penny apiece, but after their popularity was realized, the price steadily climbed as high as a dime, requiring a purchase of a new vending machine for the venue.
The company’s foray into card manufacture and distribution began in 1921 and saw enormous growth from the outset of the venture. They produced cards featuring nearly everything imaginable: sports stars, Hollywood starlets, fighter jets, and television stars. By far, the most popular cards were those of the baseball stars. By the 19th century, professional baseball was solidified as the national pastime, and there were few icons that embodied American idealism more than the rugged, powerful, and precise men of professional baseball. As the baseball cards took off, this prompted the company to produce even more cards, and when the popularity finally peaked in the early 1960’s, they even opted to sell the cards directly in celluloid packages, bypassing the need for the vending machines. The vending machines were so entrenched in the consumer mindset though, and the collectibility of the vending machine cards was so well established, that patrons were very leery about the value and quality of the packaged cards. This shift in focus eventually led to Exhibit Supply Company going out of business in 1971.
Though they are no longer producing their famed cards, the fact that the company no longer exists has made its products into sought after collector’s items. The vending machines themselves are very popular when they come up in major sports memorabilia auctions. The advertising equipment that accompanied each machine has become highly desirable as well, especially those portraying baseball stars. A 1920s Exhibit vending machine sold at auction in June of this year for $1022.
The cards themselves though, are the most universally sought after commodity from this venture. Much less rugged than the machines and advertising peripherals, very few cards survived in pristine quality; after all, they were primarily the fare of school kids in arcades, and very few had the good sense to keep them locked away to preserve them.
The baseball cards are by far the most valuable from this collection though. Due in part to their popularity during the era of Exhibit Supply Company, but due mostly to the popularity of baseball cards today. ESC inspired a great number of other companies to begin producing their own cards when their product was performing so admirably. Those who chose to follow Exhibit Supply Company’s example chose to base their business model on the most profitable aspect of the company, its baseball card production. The initial foray into supplying baseball cards in celluloid packages helped to ease collectors into the notion that this was entirely acceptable, and this paved the way for the brands that still exist today.
Many of the game’s greatest stars are pictured on Exhibit cards–many of whom have multiple cards within the various series. During World War II, Exhibit cards remained among the few widely distributed trading card products despite a paper conservation effort, although its sets remained smaller during the War years. The ’42-45 series are more difficult to find that many of the other series.
Many Exhibit cards are difficult to connect to a certain season because of the lack of statistics or a manufacture date on the back, but tireless research by collectors has established checklists that are generally accurate. Exhibit cards are generally exceptionally affordable except for certain issues, like those made in the 1920s. Two years ago, a 1925 Lou Gehrig ‘rookie’ card graded PSA 5, sold on eBay for a “best offer” price of $14,000.
The baseball cards that Exhibit Supply Company produced primarily derive their value from their position near the beginning of the great baseball card legacy and their extreme cultural value, capturing players from the golden age of professional baseball.
You can see Exhibit cards on eBay here.