Breaking into Pre-War Collecting: Tobacco Cards
Today, I wanted to tackle arguably the most popular of all pre-war cards: tobacco cards.
What Are Tobacco Cards?
Tobacco cards, quite simply, are what they sound like. These are cards that were distributed by tobacco companies. These issues were mostly packaged with tobacco products and were typically placed inside boxes of cigarettes. Cards inside of cigarette packages served three primary purposes. Some were included with other tobacco products, such as scrap/loose tobacco. Many of those will often be seen with tobacco stain remnants, such as the Polar Bear T206 cards.
First, and most practically, they were a stiffener for boxes of cigarettes. Second, they were a collectible of sorts as companies encouraged buyers to collect entire sets of the subjects. Finally, they were an advertisement as they typically included the name of the tobacco brand somewhere on the card.
While cards were often produced for cigarettes, they could also be found in some other products. Even products such as loose leaf tobacco pouches sometimes included cards. As a result, it isn’t uncommon to find cards damaged by tobacco stains as they could brush up against loose tobacco inside packaging.
It is important to note that while I’m going to focus on sports-related cards, all kinds of non-sports tobacco cards exist. Tobacco companies made cards for all sorts of things, including birds, flowers, famous people, pretty women, dogs, famous places, and much more. You name it and a tobacco card was probably created for it.
In terms of classification, two types of pre-war tobacco cards exist – N-Cards and T-Cards. N-Cards are tobacco issues printed in the 19th Century while T-Cards are tobacco cards printed in the 20th Century.
One interesting fact is that, while most collectors use the N-Card designation for 19th Century tobacco cards today, the ‘N-Cards’ name in Jefferson Burdick’s American Card Catalog was used to represent cards from Central and South America. Collectors looking for a way to distinguish between older and newer tobacco cards simply used the N-Card designation for 19th Century Tobacco cards instead of for cards from Central and South America. When someone mentions an N-Card today, you can be 99% sure they are talking about 19th Century tobacco cards. It’s just a widely accepted designation change.
The earliest tobacco cards are N-Cards from the 1800s. Tobacco cards first started hitting the scene in big quantities in the late 1880s. The most popular N-Card set is probably the N172 Old Judge set, printed from 1886-90. Instead of colorful lithographs used for pictures, these cards actually used real sepia-toned photographs and attached them to card board backing. In other words, the pictures aren’t actually printed directly onto the cards. While the T206 set is called ‘The Monster’ due to its size, it has nothing on the Old Judge set. PSA says the set includes more than 4,500 different cards counting all of the variations.
In addition, a lot of sets used women as a lure with the hopes of selling more tobacco. Several sets, often using real photographs, featured women dressed up as baseball players. Some of these included the Sub Rosa Girls set (N508) and the Dixie Cigarettes/Virginia Brights Girls sets (N48). While these cards didn’t feature pictures of actual female players, they depicted unidentified women and the cards are often expensive because they are much rarer than a lot of other N-Card issues.
One problem with the use of the real photographs on cards is that many have faded over the years. Cards with clear images, even if they have suffered other damage such as creasing or stains, are highly desired. These types of cards are best kept out of light so that they can be preserved and kept from further damage.
Some early tobacco manufacturers created special premium items as well, which were related to their cards. Some created albums, which could be secured by purchasing so many tobacco products and redeeming special coupons for them. These albums generally included pictures of the cards from the set. Some collectors opted to cut the ‘cards’ out of the albums and that has led to some confusion as they are sometimes peddled as actual cards when they are in fact cut from album pages.
Other premiums sometimes available were cabinet cards. These cabinet cards were larger pictures of baseball players, often using the same image as found on the cards. The N173 Old Judge Cabinets are one example of this. As cabinet cards were often obtained from mail-in offers, they are much rarer than the actual cards packaged directly with tobacco products.
The 1888 N28 Allen & Ginter set is one of the most beautiful issues of all time. The set came after the earliest tobacco issues and features 50 cards and ten baseball players, including popular Hall of Famers, such as Cap Anson, Tim Keefe, John Ward, and others. Other athletes from a variety of sports are also known but the baseball cards were the key ones. Allen & Ginter followed that set up with the 1889 N29 set, another set of 50 sports cards with six baseball issues.
Other similarly great looking color lithographic sets were created, too. The 1888 Goodwin Champions (N162) set is a favorite of a lot of early collectors. That set was important as it featured what is generally recognized as the first true football card, as it depicted Yale captain Harry Beecher.
Not all sets used real players. Some, such as the 1887 N284 Buchner Gold Coin set were kind of halfway. That set used real names of players but the pictures are sometimes considered to be generic since some were used over and over for different players. However, the set has very real differences that make them lean towards being a non-generic set.
Some sets were entirely generic using pictures of players that were not real major leaguers. Duke Cigarettes was a popular issuer of baseball cards that didn’t feature specific players, often using humor in its sets and they produced numerous series’ in 1888. The 1888 N88 Duke Terrors of America set, for example, featured boys participating in baseball and also a number of mischievous activities. The 1888 Talk of the Diamond set (N135) as well as their 1888 Duke Presidents (N154) series, which put oversized heads of presidential candidates onto the bodies of baseball players, were also comical sets.
In the late 1800s, there was actually a ban on tobacco inserts. I cover the topic a bit here in a separate article. But they would return after only a few years.
Tobacco was a booming industry and more products were surfacing. Many of them turned to baseball cards to advertise their various brands and part of the reason for that was because baseball was becoming more and more popular with the emergence of household names, such as Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb.
The turn of the century didn’t feature a ton of tobacco cards but starting in 1909, things really started heating up. The most significant baseball card set of all time, the T206 set, was born and ruled from 1909-11. That massive 524-card issue is still being collected in large numbers today. It was quickly followed by the T205 set in 1911 and then the T207 set in 1912. The T206 set is somewhat known by even many non-collectors since it features the iconic Honus Wagner card pictured here, which is the most expensive baseball card of all time. One, in fact, recently sold for more than three million dollars.
These cards continued to use the color lithographic pictures that were becoming so common. Artwork for these cards was not likely inexpensive and, as a result, some of the pictures were licensed out and reused in other sets so that tobacco manufacturers didn’t go broke in finding and paying artists for the photos on the cards. You’ll often find the same pictures or variations of them in more than one tobacco set.
All kinds of tobacco sets were being created, several of them quite unique. Some were your typical, run-of-the-mill rectangular card and others were much different.
The 1913 Fatima (T200) set featured thin photos of entire teams. The 1912 Hassan Triple Folders (T202) set included three separate pictures – two individuals on the sides and a black and white image in the middle. That was a step up from the 1911 Mecca Double Folders (T201) set, which folded to display two different players, that was produced a year earlier.
From 1909-14, tobacco cards were extremely popular.
U.S. Slowdown … and International Growth
After about 1915, tobacco cards started giving way to caramel and candy cards. By now it had become pretty apparent that the baseball ‘pictures’ as they were often called back then were much more popular with children than adults, and you saw less tobacco companies producing cards and more caramel and candy companies getting into the market.
Tobacco companies likely felt some pressure, too. For years, children had become immersed with the notion of collecting the tobacco cards, which led to problems, as some newspaper articles from the time have attested. Some children began smoking while others illegally purchased the tobacco merely for the cards. Others just became a nuisance, bothering adults for the cards from their packs.
But while tobacco cards were starting to wither away in the U.S., they were becoming really popular internationally. Many international sets, particularly in strong economic countries such as England, were being produced at astronomical rates. Sets were also produced in other countries around the globe, including Germany, Canada, Venezuela, Australia, Cuba, and others.
Because they were international sets, these cards often featured other sports such as soccer, tennis, and golf. But baseball was still a really big feature in many sets.
Many sets were multi-sport issues featuring different sports in different countries. A slew of these types of sets were produced and many had American baseball cards in them. The more popular ones included the 1916-17 Sports of the World set, the 1929 Imperial (often referred to as Churchman) Sports & Games set, the 1928 Major Drapkin set, and the 1925 Turf/Boguslavsky Sports Records set. Some of those issues included real players while others showed generic players in a simple attempt to picture the sport of baseball.
Finally, while rare, there were some international baseball-only tobacco sets. The most popular is like the 1912 C46 Imperial Tobacco set produced in Montreal, Canada. This set featured minor league players from the International League, which had both Canadian and American players. Another baseball-only tobacco issue produced outside of the U.S. was the 1924 Cigarrera Diaz Big League Pitchers set. This Cuban issue included 136 cards consisting only of pitchers in the major leagues.
While tobacco issues had slowed dramatically in the U.S. after 1915, they were on the rise internationally.
Of the four major American sports, baseball was far and away the most prominently featured on tobacco cards. But hockey, football, and basketball all have some pre-war tobacco issues, too, and no tobacco card article would be complete without their inclusion.
Hockey was next in line with a decent number of issues. Most notably, the C55, C56, and C57 sets produced from 1910-13 are among the most popular pre-war hockey issues.
On the football front, while most American football cards were part of multi-sport releases that came later in the 1900s, the first solely football set was created in the late 1800s with the 1894 Mayo Cut Plug issue. The set features football players from Ivy League schools, Harvard, Princeton, Yale.
Basketball was also featured on some issues but only as a part of multi-sport sets. Tobacco is credited as providing us with what is arguably the first true basketball card. The Williams College card found in the T51 Murad set is generally seen as holding that distinction. The T51 Murad issue featured numerous sports at different colleges around the U.S. with some even outside of the country. That set was important because it showed the tobacco companies marketing to an entirely new group of people – college students. Around the same time, numerous tobacco issues also began springing up featuring college and university seals, sports, women, and logos.
A few tobacco cards were produced after the 1930s but they were few and far between. Tobacco issues mostly ended in that decade as baseball cards really started being produced more by gum and candy companies.
That led to the creation of Goudey and Play Ball cards in the gum-card era. But for about 50 years, tobacco and American sports sort of went hand in hand.