Tracking Pre-War Cards Against Major U.S. Historical Events

A look at how early sports card releases correlated with some of the biggest events in American history

One of the great things that collectors love about pre-war cards is that they offer a bit of a look into history. But another interesting thing that I’ve thought about is how those sports cards tied into what historical events were going on around the country.

Here’s a look at some things I noticed.

Early 1900s (Turn of the Century)

No cool parallel here with specific card sets, unfortunately. In fact, we’ve got a noticeable lack of sets. But why is that?

When I first started collecting pre-war cards, I was initially surprised there wasn’t many cards produced around this time. Think of how 1999/2000 was celebrated and imagine all of the hype around that. You would have figured a similar type of scenario back in 1899, right? No such luck, actually, at least in terms of card production. In 1899 and 1900, things were very quiet on that front.

n300-ansonThat hardly is because cards didn’t exist yet — to the contrary. There were a lot of 19th Century tobacco cards issued in the late 1880s and early 1890s but after that, things sort of declined. Some popular sets were issued into the 1890s, including the landmark¬†N300 Mayo set¬†(one is pictured here) and a few others. But for the most part, the furor of sets in the late 1880s really died down towards the Turn of the Century.

So why not many cards around this time? Two things.

For one thing, it is important to look at the collecting landscape as a whole. A handful of candy issues were printed in the 1800s but there were hardly any of those at all. The candy card boom wouldn’t really hit until the early 1900s. Similarly, things like bread cards and strip cards didn’t come around until later. Even postcards weren’t really popular until the early 1900s, largely because until 1898, a monopoly of sorts existed where only the post office could produce post cards that could be mailed for one cent. Ones could be produced privately but they actually cost two cents to mail, so you can imagine which ones were more popular (It took the Private Mailing Card Act in 1898 to even the playing field, and that ultimately opened the floodgates for all sorts of postcards soon after that).

Simply put, the only cards really being produced were the aforementioned tobacco cards. Okay, but, where were they?

The most commonly cited explanation for the disappearance of American tobacco cards is due to the 1890 founding of the American Tobacco Company, a merger of several tobacco companies. Tobacco cards were previously a way to attract a customer who might otherwise pursue another brand’s product. But the merger removed the competition and, as a result, there wasn’t much reason to keep spending money in producing the cards.

For the most part, no tobacco cards meant no cards, which is kind of a shame.

WWI (1914-18)

A similar blackout here is notable, though for different reasons. Instead of a tobacco merger, the reason for a lack of cards was due to the first World War. After the boom of numerous sets from 1909-12, fewer cards were being produced during the war.

As I’ve written before, the production of cards again took a nosedive during World War I, which is completely understandable. And it unfortunately coincided with the career of several great players (i.e. Shoeless Joe Jackson) who, as a result, didn’t have as many cards printed as they probably should have. Not only that but, even the players that would have a lot of cards produced were affected. Chief among them?

Babe Ruth.

Ruth would have all sorts of cards issued as he dominated the 1920s and even part of the 1930s. But early Ruth cards are tough to come by. I mean, there’s his Baltimore News minor league rookie and his M101-4/5 major league rookies but not much else.

But what about the cards that were produced? What can those tell us? Let’s take a look. Major sets produced during World War I include E106, Cracker Jack, E135 Collins-McCarthy, E224 Texas Tommy, E136 Zee-Nuts, D381 Ferguson/Fleischmann Bakery, D303 General Baking/Mother’s Bread, M101-4 / M101-5 Mendelsohn sets, D350 Standard Biscuit, D328 Weil Baking, Tango Eggs, T213 Coupon, T222 Fatima, and T214 Victory. There could be a few others but this group gives us a good sample size.

t222-bushStengel E135 Collins McCarthyE224 Texas TommyNow, I’m not going to include pictures of all of those sets here. But only E106, D303, Tango Eggs, T213, and T214 were printed with full color images and looked more like the earlier candy/tobacco cards. The rest were all either black and white issues, sepia issues, or had very limited color. I’ve heard some collectors mention that some ink colors were not as readily available during war times and that would help explain most of the changes to a duller style of card. A few of those examples are shown here. Even Cracker Jack cards with their obscenely bold red backgrounds included images of players with far more muted colors.

But what about the color sets that were produced? Well, the interesting thing is that all of them included images that were already previously used in other issues. E106, Tango Eggs, and D303 all used pictures from the E90-1 and E92 sets that were previously made. And T213 and T214 both used pictures from the T206 set issued several years earlier, too. In short, even the few full color sets that were used were reboots of past exhibitions and didn’t require distributors to commission new artwork, which was a significant expense.

In short, during World War I, collectors started to see a more bland-looking type of set than they were used to during the boom of collecting from about 1909-12.

It is also worth pointing out what came just after the end of World War I — and that was the introduction of the strip cards.

The heyday of strip cards began around the time the war ended and the key characteristic of those cards also might give us a glimpse of what times were like in the country. Those cards were printed on low-quality paper and, by comparison, inexpensive to create. It is possible that those types of cards became popular as the nation was getting back to normalcy again after the war.

Prohibition (1919-33)

1930 Blue Ribbon Maltf50-06-ruth-throwingProhibition, the ban of alcohol sales, was another key moment in American history. And we see some ties to card collecting during this period as well.

One of the more notable issues that I recently wrote about was the F50 Yuengling set. As a beer brewery, Yuengling (and others) were forced to change direction once alcohol sales were banned. Yuengling did that, in part, through the creation of an ice cream business. That is important in the world of card collecting as ice cream cards were gaining some traction during this time and their 1928 set was one of several baseball card issues.

Part of the reason they may have been swayed to create an ice cream set? A whole lot of companies were making them during Prohibition. Fro-Joy cones were popular and issued two sets featuring Babe Ruth and Gene Tunney during summer promotions in the 1920s. Hendler’s Ice Cream hopped onto the strip card bandwagon and issued cards. A product called Jersey Ice Cream did the same. Ice cream cards were also very popular to the north in Canada with several sets being produced for Honey Boy Ice Cream, Crescent Ice Cream, and Holland Creameries. It is possible that Yuengling saw some success with some of these sets and got the idea from them as all of those sets were distributed earlier.

And another Prohibition era product, Blue Ribbon Malt, also got in on the act. During the tail end of Prohibition, they issued sets of photographs of the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, first in 1930, and then the following year in 1931.

Interestingly enough, there’s a great backstory behind it. Blue Ribbon Malt was not being made by Pabst, the brewer associated with that name. Instead, it was being issued by another brewer, the Decatur Brewing Company, hoping to capitalize on the Pabst ‘Blue Ribbon’ brand name.

During Prohibition, breweries could not sell alcohol but they could sell the ingredients used to make them. As a result, several sold these types of ingredients and associated products, including malt. The problem is that Decatur had already been producing the product before Prohibition and, when Pabst wanted to do that with the Blue Ribbon name after Prohibition went into effect, they sued for rights to the name, ultimately losing. But it didn’t matter much as Pabst and Blue Ribbon ultimately merged shortly after that, anyway.

Great Depression and Subsequent Recovery in 1933

The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuring Great Depression meant for some pretty bleak times in the early 1930s. And there, too, we see a time when baseball cards were primarily on the back burner. During that time, the only thing collectors saw much of were low-grade strip cards, which were dying down, and Exhibit cards, which could be bought in machines, usually for a penny.

Ruth 1933 Goudey Yellow

Candy and gum cards were virtually non-existent from 1929 through 1932. That would otherwise be surprising as candy cards were so popular in the early 1910s and throughout the 1920s. A few American sets trickled out, such as the 1929 Star Player Candy issue, but those were few and far between. Simply put, people were far more concerned with survival than they were buying luxuries of candy and baseball cards.

But in 1933, things turned around with FDR, who instituted the New Deal aimed at getting the economy back on track. And soon after, a glut of baseball cards followed. In fact, from 1933 through 1936, led by Goudey, about three dozen sets were produced — a far cry from the handful of sets in the four years before that period.

Goudey, of course, was a big producer, creating numerous sets. But they were hardly alone. DeLong, Butterfinger, Batter Up, Diamond Stars, George Miller, Eclipse, National Chicle, Tattoo Orbit — these were just some of the competing sets springing up and there were others as well. The 1933-36 era was one of the most competitive times in the history of card collecting and that so many releases were distributed coincided with the country’s economic recovery is probably not by coincidence.

WWII (1939-45)

1940 play ball joe jackson

WWII brought about much of the same as WWI did — and that was a dearth of baseball cards.

Now, when World War II began in 1939, American card collecting was still very much alive. After all, several sets were produced in 1938 and 1939, with a few continuing into 1941. But to that point, the U.S. had not been involved so the impact may have been lessened. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially entered the war shortly after. Somewhat unsurprisingly, that is about the time the baseball card industry went dark.

Goudey and Play Ball, the two primary companies issuing sets at that time both produced their last set in 1941. PSA shows about 25 American sets in their registry that were issued entirely, or in part, from 1938-41. From 1942-45, though, there were only five — and even several of those were postcard and stamp issues. One of the factors often mentioned was a paper shortage in the early 1940s and, in addition to wartime concerns, that probably didn’t help matters.

American card collecting would again start in earnest in the late 1940s with Bowman leading the way, and the early 1950s with the introduction of Topps cards. But the 1940s, particularly due to a large chunk of it being occupied by World War II, are one of the hobby’s quieter times.

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