Many affordable pre-war cards are from across the pond
I’m often asked about the best, most affordable ways to jump into pre-war card collecting. On the site, I’ve covered numerous topics, including some of the cheapest sets or how to spend your first $100 on pre-war cards.
I’ve also covered some of the cheaper individual issues, which you can find here.
One thing not yet discussed, though, are the absolute abundance of affordability of UK sets.
1920s and 1930s UK cards are generally plentiful and inexpensive
Tobacco cards weren’t just popular here in the U.S. There are all sorts of tobacco and cigarette cards that were produced over in the United Kingdom. And while many were non-sports cards, there is a large amount of sports issues.
Cards were collected over there quite heavily but, in general, it seemed like more of an adult hobby overseas. Despite their age, many of the cards produced in the 1930s from the UK are often found in excellent shape. Not all are in mint condition, mind you, but the cards are in infinitely better condition than the gum issues found in the U.S. The cards were likely collected by more adults than cards here were and, as a result, they were taken care of.
While there are cards from the UK that were produced prior to the 1930s, there are fewer of those sorts of sets. The real heyday for cigarette cards produced there seems to be in the 1920s and, especially, the 1930s. Many sets were created among some of the famous tobacco manufacturers/cigarette companies, such as Wills, Player and Sons, Churchman, and Gallagher, which were some of the more popular brands printing cards.
There are more expensive sets and, like many others here in the U.S., often the earlier you go, the pricier things will get. But, in general, there’s a whole lot of cheap collecting to be had with UK tobacco cards.
When it comes to finding these cards, eBay will always be your best bet. There, you’ll find numerous sets and while most will be from sellers overseas, the cards typically don’t take too long to arrive and shipping is generally pretty reasonable. I’ve purchased many UK sets from eBay with most showing up in 7-10 days.
Characteristics of pre-war UK cards
Several glaring characteristics stick out when trying to compare the UK issues to cards produced here in the U.S.
First, in general, the cards are not nearly as valuable and the abundance of high-grade UK cards is a big reason for that. With few exceptions, finding a high-grade UK cigarette card simply isn’t the same as finding a high-grade Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig gum card.
Second, while many sets focus on a particular sport, there are numerous multi-sport issues. Many sets sought to show collectors what kind of sports were being played in various parts of the world. And while there were some U.S. sets, most did not feature the obscure sports you’ll find in many UK sets like tent pegging, the caber toss, and skittles (yes, those are all real, I swear).
Finally, when it comes to baseball, the sport is not usually highlighted in the UK sets. Some baseball cards are found, of course. One interesting one is a George Sisler card found in the 1925 Turf Cigarettes/Boguslavsky set. Another is the Babe Ruth card from the 1929 Churchman/Imperial Tobacco set (that set also includes football and hockey cards). Another is a generic baseball card from the 1901 Wills Sports of All Nations set. But, in general, UK cards more often featured things like boxing, soccer, and other less popular sports here in the U.S.
Baseball cards are available but if you want to make your dollar go far, you’ll want to look past those.
Learn to Sacrifice
So, here’s the thing. You might only be accustomed to collecting baseball cards. But while there are baseball cards from the UK that were produced, they are often among the more desired cards by collectors. You simply won’t typically find many of them, save for a few examples like the Churchman Ruth cards. Those are available quite a bit because they fetch a good amount of money and are relatively liquid assets.
But if you’re willing to consider non-baseball cards, you’ll find an entire world opened up to you. Many of the sets without baseball cards are quite affordable. It isn’t uncommon to find complete 25-card and 50-card sets, for example, for around $1 per card … or in some cases, even less. I’ve bought several UK sets for under $20 (even including shipping from the UK) and you can easily find sets depicting the more common American sports, such as hockey, golf, boxing, tennis, or soccer as opposed to completely off the wall sports.
Hockey, in particular, is a sport that, while not abundantly featured, is present in several sets, including Lambert & Butler’s 1914 Winter Sports issue, Bocnal’s 1938 Luminous Silhouettes set, or the 1937 Senior Service Winter Scenes set. You can find a full list of tobacco sets with hockey cards here.
And if hockey isn’t your thing, you can also find some sets that will include some familiar names.
The 1939 Churchman Kings of Speed set, for example, is a multi-sport issue that includes cards of pilot Howard Hughes as well as track and field star Jesse Owens. The 1938 Boxing Personalities set includes legends Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson, among others. And the 1936 Ogden Champions set is another that features Owens. =
There are all sorts of sets that can be had for low prices.
Lots of Benefits
There are plenty of benefits to jumping into pre-war cards through UK issues. First, as stated, you’ll often find cards in much better condition than you would for the prices you’ll pay for high-grade baseball issues from the U.S.
Second, you can often find complete sets all at once. That saves you from the hassle of trying to track down specific cards or creating long projects for yourself. In one afternoon, I once purchased about ten different sets at low prices.
Finally, because the cards are inexpensive, they aren’t a huge investment. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spoken with collectors that have spent big money towards completing sets only to be sick of the cards before reaching completion. Here, even if you aren’t enamored with the cards later, the investment is generally pretty small.
If you’re looking for a cheap place to start when it comes to pre-war cards, tobacco cards from the UK is a reasonable fit.