The Evolution of Card Collecting
Here’s a quick review of how American sports cards have evolved over the years
When most modern collectors think about baseball cards, they tend to think purely about companies like Topps or Panini. Pre-war collectors know better, though. While Topps came to dominate the industry, cards have evolved plenty over the years.
Here’s a quick overview of the evolution of sports cards from their inception to the present day. Keep in mind that some of the types of cards in these eras definitely overlap (i.e. there are earlier candy cards printed in the 19th century). But this is a general ‘rule of thumb’ type of list of when different types of cards emerged and were popular.
Additionally, I did not create a mention of Exhibit cards, though they almost certainly warrant it. These cards were distributed in arcade machines where collectors could insert money and receive a card. These cards were mostly issued from the 1920s through 1960s but while popular, they don’t fit well into the overall timeline. Other types of cards, including bakery, game, and food issues were also printed somewhat sporadically.
Trade Cards (1860s – 1880s)
Trade cards are generally considered the earliest cards. Trade cards featuring real players are known back to the 1860s and this was the most popular genre of card for a few decades.
These cards were basically oversized business cards where businesses printed or stamped their names/advertisements onto them. They generally had a picture on one side with a name/advertisement on the bottom or the back. Trade cards with all kinds of images existed and sports ones were relatively few compared to the non-sports ones. And while some sports trade cards featured real athletes (the first recognized professional baseball cards, to many, were early trade issues featuring real teams, for example), many did not. These cards are often thin and fragile compared to later cardboard cards.
Many had a humorous spin to them or featured children. While some featuring generic subjects can be cheap, others can be expensive due to the age and rarity of certain issues.
19th Century Tobacco (1880s – 1890s)
Competing with each other in the 1880s, tobacco companies began to see the value in offering consumers small pictures of subjects. These tobacco cards existed mostly in the 1880s before tailing off in the 1890s after a merger of tobacco companies rendered them useless.
Again, while baseball players were the subject on many, all kinds of tobacco card subjects existed. Actresses were one of the primary subjects in early tobacco cards, for example. In terms of other sports cards, boxers were quite popular, too.
In general, there were two styles of cards most often seen. Earlier cards like the Old Judge issues, among others, used real photographs that were then affixed to cardboard. As cards became more sophisticated, they used color lithographic pictures.
Tobacco cards were ultimately banned in the late 1890s, though that would not last long. Many saw them as having a negative influence on children but they would return anyway in the 20th century.
When tobacco cards were banned for a brief time in the late 1800s, postcards began to emerge as a predominant type of collectible.
Many were non-sports related but a good many featured athletes. And similar to trade cards, there was a wide mix of postcards with real athletes vs. ones with cartoons and generic pictures of random subjects.
Postcards are, of course, still published in great quantities to this day. But their emergence came in the early 1900s and 1910s.
Despite their age, early postcards represent some of the best bargains for sports cards. Some of these issues are more than a century old, after all. But postcards featuring generic subjects can be as little as $5-$10, depending on the sport and rarity of the issue. Others with real athletes, however, are more important and can even cost thousands of dollars.
20th Century Tobacco (1900s-1910s)
Tobacco cards returned in the early 20th century, though they didn’t really surface in earnest until the later part of the decade. If there’s a golden era of pre-war cards, this time period and these issues are certainly it for many collectors, rivaled only by the gum cards of the 1930s.
From 1909-1914, tobacco cards were wildly popular. Cards appeared in all kinds of tobacco products but those in cigarette packages were the ones seen the most. Today, tobacco cards are among the most collected pre-war cards in general.
The T206 cards are king here, but plenty of other notable issues, such as the gold-bordered T205 cards existed. And while it was mostly major leaguers dominating these sets, cards of minor league players became popular during this time. Some sets, like the popular T212 Obak issues, among others, were actually dedicated entirely to minor league players.
It is important to point out that during this time, tobacco companies also experimented with other types of premiums, too. Some offered miniature felts/blankets, leathers, or even stamps and silks.
Early Candy / Strip Cards / Exhibits (1910s – 1920s)
The emergence of early candy/caramel cards generally took place around the same time the tobacco cards did. But while some candy issues came before 1910, their heyday was really from about 1910 through the 1920s. Some issues, it should be pointed out, came in 1909.
Here, it was American Caramel leading the way, though there were certainly other popular issues, too, from companies like Standard Caramel and Philadelphia Caramel. Among those are the popular war-time Cracker Jack sets issued in 1914 and 1915 during World War I.
Another type of card that gained some traction were strip cards. Some strip cards entered the scene in the 1910s and came in the 1930s, but the bulk were 1920s issues as baseball really started to take off with the popularity of Babe Ruth. These cards are generally not as desirable as tobacco and candy cards, often making them less expensive than those alternatives. They were generally cut or torn from strips or sheets with other cards on them and given or sold to customers.
Shown here is a caramel card on the left and a strip card on the right.
Finally, Exhibit cards were introduced in this era, too. And while they lasted ultimately for many decades, they got their start here. These larger, postcard-sized cards were available primarily in arcade machines. That was unique because, unlike other cards distributed with products that came before it, these cards were the actual product purchased by collectors.
Pre-War Gum (1930s)
The pre-war gum era was mostly a 1930s issue. Depending on your own definition of pre-war, early 1940s war-time issues, such as the Play Ball cards of 1940 and 1941, can sometimes be included here. But in general, most pre-war gum sets were 1930s releases.
Goudey, of course, was the heavy hitter. But others, such as National Chicle, U.S. Caramel, Delong, and Gum, Inc., provided stiff competition.
Arguably the biggest takeaway from the gum card era is that the designs of the cards changed drastically. Instead of a small rectangular shape, these cards now took the form of more of a square card printed on thicker stock — sort of a precursor to what they would look like in vintage Bowman and Topps issues to come later. Other earlier American tobacco cards did use this shape. However, the 1930s gum card era is really when the shape of most cards made a decided shift.
This era is also important as we saw some other sports being prominently featured, such as football and basketball.
Post-War Gum (1940s – Modern Era)
After World War II, manufacturers began scrambling to again create baseball cards. The cards had sort of taken a backseat to the war with few wartime issues being printed. However, the modern era kicked off around 1948 with Bowman, Leaf, and Topps fighting to gain control.
Bowman gave Topps some significant competition for nearly a decade but was ultimately bought out. Topps would take control of the market and dominate until the early 1980s when competitors Donruss and Fleer were able to join in.
Others followed suit. Today, companies like Topps and Panini dominate the marketplace with others around, too.
In this post-war era, cards really became the focal point as opposed to an insert that was merely issued with gum or other candy products. Topps continued to insert gum in its packs but soon into their entry into the marketplace, cards quickly became the focal point..
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