Autograph Collecting Spotlighted in the 1920s Through a Pre-War Tobacco Set
A pre-war tobacco set proved that autograph collecting was alive and well in the 1920s
The craze of autograph collecting isn’t really believed to have hit until the post-war era. Collectors were surely seeking autographs well before that and we have plenty of documentation to support that. However, it didn’t reach the heights it did until after World War II.
But one pre-war set from the UK gives us an idea that at least some folks in the pre-war era desired autographs just as people do today.
The Sarony Celebrities and their Autographs set is a unique one, to be sure. In all, it contains 100 cards of famous people. Often dated to 1923, cards were actually distributed in three series’ in 1923, 1924, and 1925. This site says that cards numbered 1-25 were issued in 1923, 26-75 came in 1924, and 76-100 are from 1925. Like many UK sets, there are both a large and small version of these cards. The cards were distributed with cigarette/tobacco products offered by Nicholas Sarony and Company.
This wasn’t the first set to contain signatures of famous people. But while other cards did have replica signatures or signature ‘likenesses’ on them (i.e. the T205 baseball card set), this one is a bit unique for a couple of reasons.
First, there’s the name of the cards, which explicitly put the word ‘autographs’ in the title. Backs formally call this the ‘Celebrities and their Autographs’ set and a mention of autographs in any title for cards in the pre-war era was just not seen. At least not much if it was, anyway. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any other sets using the word ‘autographs’ in the title.
Second, the autograph is really the focal point of the entire card. Not only is it placed prominently in a scroll on the front, but the back even documents where the signature was copied from and/or where it can be viewed by the public — often in a museum or library. It is one of the earliest card sets to focus almost exclusively on the subject’s autograph.
Now, the unfortunate thing for most collectors is that is almost entirely a non-sports set. I have not been able to track down a complete checklist but the only sports figure in it that I have seen to date is famous cricketer W.G. Grace (and, no, I swear that’s not Gandalf of Lord of the Rings fame). His card, which I obtained earlier this year, is shown here.
What this set really proves (to me, anyway) is that autograph collecting was at least somewhat popular back in this time period. If nothing else, there was an interest in the autographs of famous people and this set wouldn’t have been made if there wasn’t. The autographs didn’t hold the kind of value that autographs do today. But at least one tobacco company assumed there was enough of a desire to see what autographs of some of the most famous people in the world looked like.
Even though the subjects in it are important figures, such as Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, and many others, it goes under the radar as a non-sports set. I can only imagine the demand if it featured pictures and autographs of athletes. Nonetheless, it’s still a cool set and if non-sports cards are your thing, one worth checking out.
In terms of prices, it’s not bad. Singles typically sell for at least a few bucks with asking prices of $10-$20 for many of the key figures to collectors, including Grace. But I’ve also seen complete sets sell for $50 or even less, and that’s the best bet in terms of ‘bang for the buck’ if you want more than just a few cards.