The Final Days of Noted Collector Jefferson Burdick

The author of the American Card Catalog spent his final days in pain and with his collection

Jefferson Burdick made one of the most significant contributions to the sports card hobby with the introduction of the American Card Catalog. His book is still used today as collectors still use his classifications to help keep track of the various sorts of vintage cards.

Burdick dedicated much of his life to collecting and his final days were no different, really. He died in 1963 but not before he would donate his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the actual donation was only part of what Burdick did in his final days.

See, Burdick didn’t merely drop off his collection of more than 300,000 cards and paper items and hit the road. The cards needed to be sorted and identified, so Burdick spent the last years of his life at the museum doing just that. Starting in the late 1940s, Burdick made several donations to the museum and then took to sorting them.

Burdick’s work at the end of his life in cataloging his collection wasn’t easy. It was not only difficult due to its size but, more importantly, because Burdick was not well. A 1967 New York Times News Service article that was printed in papers across the country after his death called Burdick ‘a frail, pain-racked arthritic.’

Still, despite the pain, Burdick was determined to finish his work. The easiest way was to work directly in the museum, so that’s what he did. As noted in several early newspapers, Burdick worked from a small desk in a corner of the museum’s print shop, sorting and cataloging his collection.

Old accounts suggest Burdick’s exact donation was for a total of 306,353 items (though the Met states the donation was for approximately 303,000 items). According to the Scrantonian newspaper in 1969, Burdick began collecting around 1910 when he would have been ten years old. 300,000+ items? That’s a lot of crap.

And crap, to many, it was. The cards obviously didn’t hold the value they did today and even though his American Card Catalog may have given some idea to the collection’s value, the actual value of those items today is exponentially higher as cards have become more popular than even Burdick would have believed. That Times article from 1967 describes the thoughts of many in a tongue-in-cheek manner while speaking of a portion of Burdick’s collection — his old gum wrappers.

“They may be seen by appointment only. If they were put on display, a conscientious porter would be likely to sweep them into a dustpan as litter.”

As such, the value of the collection wasn’t discussed all that much. Rather, the emphasis on it seemed to suggest it was valuable because the items provided a paper trail of sorts in terms of how life in earlier times differed. Some of Burdick’s postcards, for example, were cited as the only known records depicting the physical appearance of some towns. Many people didn’t see the items as having much real financial value.

Keep in mind that only a part of Burdick’s collection consisted of actual trading cards. More specifically, Burdick was a paper ephemera collector, not merely a card collector. And as I wrote here, that is one of the reasons he cataloged so many types of items in the American Card Catalog. His view of collecting was much larger than what most of us consider. His collection included tobacco and candy cards, but also things like postcards, flyers, playing cards, banners, wrappers, posters, greeting cards, and cigar bands. If it was a paper collectible, Burdick wanted it.

The September 10, 1967 edition of the Berwyn Life, a small newspaper in Berwyn, Ill. gives an idea of the exhaustiveness of Burdick’s collection. It notes that he had 394 albums and boxes. How full were these albums? One had 3,638 cigar bands. Another had 2,435 candy and gum cards. As a point of comparison today, I have pretty large 3″ binders that I use and they can hold about 1,000 tobacco cards, which are much smaller than gum issues. In other words, Burdick’s albums must have been massive if they held that many cards.

His work finally ended on January 19 in 1963 and he was reportedly at the museum for 15 years working on the project. Burdick mounted his final card and said, “I shan’t be back,” according to the New York Times article. He apparently was not as he went into a hospital the following day and passed away there only two months later at the age of 63.

Today, a large portion of Burdick’s items have been scanned and can be seen electronically on the Met website. The end of Burdick’s life wasn’t easy, but I have to imagine Burdick would have considered his work to be well worth it.

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