When trade cards became popular in the 1800s, few could have imagined their future importance. But those issues coupled with the emergence of American sports came together to provide the earliest sports cards and give the card collecting hobby its origins.
What are Trade Cards?
Trade cards, quite simply, were a mode of advertising for businesses, products, events, and all sorts of things. They are often called early business cards and that is probably the most accurate description.
The cards generally had a picture on them and most were color lithographic images. The image was usually accompanied by a business name or something else that was being advertised like a product or even a local event. Those ads were carefully placed either around the picture on the front or on the back. Sometimes ‘stock’ cards that had not yet had an advertiser name on them are found and a slight premium is usually paid for those.
One distinction of the cards is that many of the pictures were used by more than one business. An artist would create the design and then a printer would create the cards. Often, they were printed without advertising at first. Then, any local business that wanted to use them could add their specific advertising/contact information. As a result, you’ll see many of the cards with the same pictures but different advertisements – sort of like T206 baseball cards.
Some pictures were even shared outside of trade cards. This basketball trade card, for example, is the only such one that I have seen. It features advertising for a French company on the reverse. But while I have only seen the picture on one trade card, it is actually a somewhat popular image also used on postcards. Other example of that exist, too.
The images were attractive enough that people started collecting them. Even today, albums are found where collectors pasted hundreds of them inside. And there were so many trade cards made that even a large quantity of them exist today, despite the fact they are more than 100 years old. There are usually thousands on eBay alone at any given time.
In general, these cards are usually printed on thinner stock and easily damaged. Remarkably, though, many are found in very nice condition despite that. Part of the reason for that is because they were often preserved inside of albums and kept out of harm’s way. Depending on the type of glue used, these can sometimes be soaked or carefully removed from the albums with little damage to the backs.
Earliest Baseball Cards
While many trade cards were non-sports issues, there are a ton of sports cards. They are so numerous that people began keeping track of them. The American Card Catalog tracked a few, but a collector named Frank Keetz really laid the groundwork in trying to catalog the numerous baseball issues out there. One of his books has been electronically published online and can be found here.
Printed as early as the 1860s, trade cards are usually considered to be the first sports cards. A series of cards distributed by a sporting goods company, Peck and Snyder, are often viewed as the first baseball cards. In particular, the 1869 card featuring the Cincinnati Red Stockings shown here is cited as the first card picturing a professional team.
While you had trade cards featuring real players, the majority of them featured generic subjects. Women, children, and men that were not real athletes. Often, they were participating in sports on a recreational level and, much of the time, the cards were humorous in nature.
Then, you had ones that were a little bit of a mix between real athletes and generic subjects. One of the more common trade card sets is the H804-1 Baby Talk issue. While many of those picture unnamed babies participating in the sport, one of the subsets includes babies with names of real players, such as Cap Anson and King Kelly, two of the game’s earliest stars in the late 1800s. While the generic baby cards might fetch only about $10 or so, cards featuring Anson and Kelly sell for significantly more.
As trade cards became more popular in the 1870s, more sports issues were created. One of the earlier baseball issues was produced by the Forbes Company in 1878. Trade cards can often be difficult to pin down to a specific year. But Forbes included a copyright date on theirs tying them to that year.
The heyday for trade cards really seems to be the 1880s. Numerous issues are dated to that decade and there are all kinds of sports cards produced in that time period. That also corresponded with the release of some of the earliest tobacco cards produced by Old Judge.
Of the sports cards, baseball issues are the most valuable. But other sports are featured and important to mention.
Early football, basketball, and hockey cards, most notably, are found. Football trade cards (as other types of football issues) have a somewhat blurred line between American football and rugby. A half-decent barometer is to consider American issues featuring the sport of American football and international issues, rugby. Modern American football rules were developed around 1880 before many trade cards were issued.
Hockey trade cards are also very desirable. One of the more popular sets was issued by Bufford and includes a hockey card titled as, ‘Hockey on the Ice.’ This late 1870s/early 1880s card features a recreational game of ice hockey and was used to promote all sorts of businesses.
In addition to those, trade cards also featured plenty of other early cards of sports, including golf, tennis, boxing, and others.
20th Century Trade Cards
Trade cards continued into the 20th century, although they also became less frequent. Collectors were mostly shifting their attention to cards found in tobacco products and, later, candy and gum products.
But they did remain and there are several early 1900s trade card issues. Some of these also became more creative with more including things such as calendars.
The Richards-Wilcox trade cards are an example of that. Shown here, those cards were issued in the early 1900s and the company had quite a large series of them. While they may have had other trade cards, their calendar cards featured a different picture every month. As other cards evolved, so did trade cards. Some, like these, used real photographs of subjects as opposed to color lithographs.
Many of their subjects were not sports-related and, instead, pictured mostly females. But they did also produce sports cards using females as athletes. The company produced sports cards featuring all sorts of subjects, including baseball, football, hockey, and more.
They aren’t nearly as numerous but the point was the same – to help spread the word about a business, product, or event.
While it’s hard to dispute that these are actual, real-life cards, the lines of their collectability are somewhat blurred.
Some collectors will look at the generic cards as little more than novelties. But trade cards do certainly have their following. You don’t need much more evidence than the fact that Keetz’s sold out book is still in demand to this day.
Many of the cards, too, are quite rare and even ones with generic subjects can sell for more than $100. It all depends on the card. Some, like the Merchant’s Gargling Oil trade cards featuring an overweight baseball player, are extreme bargains and sell for only about $5-$10 each. Others, though, can fetch much more.
Cards? Yes. Sports cards? Definitely. But how much the generic cards are desired often depends on rarity and individual buyer interest.