1897 Marked the Temporary Death of the American Tobacco Card Industry
American tobacco card inserts were deemed illegal in the late 1800s
Last week, I wrote about various points in American history and how certain baseball cards coincided with them. But there was one topic that I didn’t mention then that deserved its own article.
One of the events I mentioned was the Turn of the Century and I discussed the lack of sets heading into 1900. The most commonly cited reason for that is the merger of several companies with the 1890 founding of the American Tobacco Company. That merger simply took away the need for companies to produce expensive premiums as they no longer had to compete with each other.
But there is another reason for the lack of sets and that is because, for a brief time, tobacco cards and other inserts were actually banned.
The end of tobacco cards
The source of that was a July 24, 1897 act from the Treasury Department, which banned the cards. The exact language read as follows:
“None of the packages of smoking tobacco and fine-cut chewing tobacco and cigarettes prescribed by law shall be permitted to have packed in, attached to, or connected with them, any article of thing whatsoever, other than the manufacturers’ wrappers and labels, the internal revenue stamp and the tobacco or cigarettes, respectively, put up therein, on which tax is required to be paid under the internal revenue laws; nor shall there be affixed to, or branded, stamped, written or printed upon said packages or their contents, any promise or offer of, or an order or certificate for any gift, prize, premium, payment or reward. It is prescribed by the regulations that no foreign article or merchandise of any kind intended to be sold or given away can be packed with tobacco or snuff in statutory packages. This regulation applies to all kinds of tobacco.”
Now, while there were all sorts of problems with the inserts (some of which I even covered here), the crux of this problem was two-fold.
First, the government didn’t want any sort of gambling associated with them where collectors were in essence buying chances for premiums, etc. That was a fine line, of course. After all, what constitutes gambling and what constitutes things like customer loyalty programs?
Nevertheless, what the government didn’t want was consumers being roped into gambling contests and such that were often advertised on the cards. So, in short, all kinds of inserts were banned.
Second, there was a problem with many cards being deemed as indecent.
While baseball cards were a majority of the inserts later, earlier cigarette cards depicted women, which were sometimes scantily clad. Even modest pictures, such as women dressed as baseball players, drew the ire of the public who considered them to be too racy — particularly for children, who had begun collecting the cards.
Those two things seemed to be the biggest reasons for the end of the tobacco cards.
An amendment that allowed for their return
As you can imagine, that didn’t sit well. Customers legitimately enjoyed the insert cards and, while expensive to produce, there is no doubt they helped the companies sell tobacco. So the ruling was challenged. And in 1902, an amendment was actually passed to allow for some leeway.
“No packages of manufactured tobacco, snuff, cigars, or cigarettes, prescribed by law, shall be permitted to have packed in, or attached to, or connected with them, nor affixed to, branded, stamped, marked, written, or printed upon them, any paper, certificate, or instrument purporting to be or represent a ticket, chance, share or interest in, or dependent upon, the event of a lottery, nor any indecent or immoral picture, representation, print, or words…”
The gist of the amendment was to allow cards that didn’t promote gambling or show indecent images.
But what about …
While there weren’t many tobacco cards during this time, there were some exceptions. For one thing, the ban did not extend outside of the United States. So, a variety of sets do exist that were produced internationally.
In addition, there’s at least one well-known baseball card set on record that was produced during the ban — the T203 Mayo Comics set. So what about those?
Two things come to mind here. For one thing, the 1900 date is generally an estimate. Jefferson Burdick didn’t assign the set a date in his American Card Catalog and I haven’t seen evidence that it was undoubtedly produced that early or that late. One interesting thing regarding the cards is that a factory number was printed on them and that practice didn’t really become common until later. It is quite possible the cards were not printed during the ban.
Second, if they were, it could have merely been an example of a company pushing the limits. And another interesting point is that, while the act banning the cards was issued in 1897, the real date for the ban centered around tax stamps with a June 1, 1900 date. Cards could not inserted into packages with tax stamps of June 1, 1900 or later. We know that from several news articles that warned of the date as it approached, such as one found in The Times from Richmond, VA that was issued a few days before the June 1, 1900 date.
So, depending on when the T203 set would have been issued, it is possible that they could have been issued after 1897 if the tax stamp date was prior to the June 1, 1900 deadline.
I can understand the reason for the ban of the cards, to be honest, and if you read up on old articles discussing the ills of the cards, it makes it easier to understand why the government and public were concerned. But thankfully a reasonable solution was reached because, without it, we never would have had the likes of important issues, such as the T206 set.