So, what is a pre-war card, anyway?

One of the more common questions I get is what really defines a pre-war card? The most basic answer is that it’s often defined as several different ways. The truest definition, to me, is all cards printed in 1939 or earlier. But I wanted to cover the different sort of answers that are sort of floating around out there and give them a closer look.

Pre-war cards, essentially, are issues before a war and World War II is credited by most as starting at some point in 1939 and lasting until 1945. But despite that, collectors interpret the phrase in many different ways. Here are the most common definitions.

Option 1: Pre-1948 Cards

1947 Bond Bread Jackie RobinsonOf any definition, this is probably the most incorrect. Pre-1948 cards are sometimes heralded as pre-war issues because 1948 really marked the beginning of modern cards. That year was the first year that Bowman produced a baseball set and, a few years later, Topps followed suit.

Thus, the pre-war definition here is really one that defines the era more by the companies that produced the cards and less by any real meaningful date. While it sounds good in theory and gives a clear break between pre-war and post-war, if the idea is to really define a pre-war card, this isn’t the way to do it since it removes the war part completely out of the equation as the war had ended years earlier.

One reason that I believe this date has gained steam is also because there were so few sets in between 1945 and 1948. Even though collectors realize that post-1945 cards cannot really be pre-war issues, it probably seems like overkill to get the exact year down. I can understand that but I just don’t happen to agree with it.

Including these sets would add things like the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson cards to the mix. Pre-war? Nah.

Option 2: Pre-1945 Cards

1941 Play Ball Joe DiMaggioThis one is a little closer, obviously. And, heck, it might even be the most popular answer if you posed the question to collectors.

This theory takes the idea of the war ending in 1945 and thus assigning all issues before it as pre-war releases. The result is that the early 1940s cards, such as Play Ball, late Goudey, Double Play, etc., all fit under the pre-war umbrella. Yay!

As a matter of convenience, this one is, well, overly convenient. Most of Goudey’s cards, for example, were printed in the 1930s. However, the company had a 1941 set as well. Same with Play Ball, which ran from 1939 through 1941. The pre-1945 definition allows all of those sets to be pre-war issues, keeping them in the same era.

This definition makes a lot of sense but the problem I’ve always had with it is that it doesn’t fit the truest definition. ‘Pre-War’, by definition, means something that happened before the war. Don’t take my word for it – here’s what Merrian-Webster says.

Definition: occurring or existing before a war and especially before World War II

Was war happening in 1940? Yep. How about 1943? Yes. 1944? Again, yes. Pre-war doesn’t mean before the end of the war, it means before the war. So while a 1945 cutoff makes some sense, it’s not really accurate.

Option 3: Pre-1914 or Pre-1918 Cards

Cy Young T205This is the definition that’s used the least as we’ve gotten farther and farther from World War I, which spanned 1914 – 1918. Proponents of this era use the World War I barrier (either the 1914 beginning or the 1918 end) as the cutoff.

If the idea is to come up with the best definition of the word, I’ve got far less of a problem with this idea (at least, 1914, anyway) than I do the others already mentioned. After all, pre-1914 cards would be prior to a war, too.

The biggest problem with using that particular war as the cutoff is that it combines too many cards, grouping almost everything we know as post-war. Those issues, too, would be remarkably different. For example, does it make much sense to consider the 1915 American Caramel issue in the same era as a 2018 Topps card? Of course not. Now, I’m not making the case that things like 1948 Bowman cards are all that similar to newer issues, either. But if we’re going back to World War I as our definition, we’re literally talking 100 years ago. That’s kind of ridiculous.

Plus, it’s not as if World War I was the first war, anyway. The term pre-war originated way back in 1868, possibly as a reference to the American Civil War. There’s absolutely nothing that says pre-war is tied to World War I any more than World War II.

Also, consider the Merriam-Webster definition, which particularly cites World War II as the common definition. Pre-war, these days, anyway, generally means before World War II and not World War I.

It should be noted that Jefferson Burdick possibly referred to pre-war cards as those from before World War I. But we also have to consider the time period, too. Burdick’s American Card Catalog was first printed in 1939 as the United States Card Collectors Catalog. Heck, World War II wasn’t even an actual thing at that time so using that as a pre-war definition wouldn’t have made any sense. I’m not sure if Burdick identified cards as pre-war issues or not but if he did, he would have been using World War I as the benchmark. However, to use that same benchmark 80 years after the publication of that book would just be kind of silly.

Option 4: Pre-1940 Cards

Ruth 1933 Goudey Red

This, to me, has always been the correction definition. It’s the model I use for this set in determining what gets added to the set database and what doesn’t. The cutoff is a simple one – all cards from 1939 and earlier are good. All cards after that date, no good.

As stated earlier, 1939 marked the recognized start date of World War II. Most mark the start of the war as later in the year and since we don’t know exactly (i.e. month, date) when most card releases from that year were printed, breaking it out any further would be too difficult and, more importantly, unnecessary.

Plus, even if we knew the exact dates of every 1939 set, it would be wildly confusing. Even I have my limits as far as levels of strictness and we’re talking about baseball cards, not the end of the world.

So why 1939 and not 1938? The reason I stick with 1939 is that many issues were likely printed in that year before the war began (which is often considered to be in September 1939). I’m guessing that more 1939 sets were created prior to the war (particularly to be out in time for baseball season) than after it. As a result, not counting 1939 cards as pre-war would probably be inaccurate.

The biggest thing I hate with using this as the cutoff is that, as I mentioned earlier, it splits up things like the Goudey and Play Ball sets. It would be one thing if those were sets that spanned over several decades but that wasn’t the case here. Splitting them up and defining only some as pre-war seems kind of dumb. But, again, if we’re trying to get the most accurate definition it sort of has to be done. 1941 cards, regardless of manufacturer, are no more pre-war than T206 cards are post-war.

Therefore, pre-1940 cards are what I believe to be the most appropriate definition.

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