The Original “Junk Era” Cards Came Much Earlier than Most Realize

The junk era of trading cards began more than a century before most thought it did

Ask card collectors about the junk era today and you’ll mostly get a pretty similar response. While some may differ on the exact years, the junk era, generally, is seen as something like 1986-1992. In those years, baseball card production was seemingly at its highest and today, countless unopened wax boxes from that time period still remain.

Thing is, that wasn’t the beginning of an overproduction of trading cards. In fact, the first junk era may have come right around the time the first cards in general were being mass produced.

The earliest types of cards are generally believed to be trade cards. These were cards that essentially served as advertisements and business cards. Most were generic and typically, you’d have a picture on the front with the name of a business added somewhere on the front or back. While many had blank backs, a bunch often used the backs for a full-blown advertisement.

We rarely get a glimpse into the actual production of cards in terms of quantities. Occasionally, we do (like we did when Cracker Jack told us how many cards they were printing in their 1914 set). But for the most part, we usually don’t have any idea of how many cards were printed from a pre-war set.

A trade card I recently picked up, however, did provide such a look. And what you might be surprised to learn is just how many early trade cards were printed.

Thomas Eclectric Oil Trade Card BackThomas Eclectric Oil Trade CardThe card in question is a non-sports one — this entirely harmless card featuring a woman that was issued for a product called, Thomas’ Eclectric Oil. This product, like others, made all sorts of health claims, citing it would quickly fix all sorts of ailments, including basic ones such as colds and coughs to more complex issues, such as asthma and rheumatism.

Two far more interesting things are found here that collectors would care much more about, however.

First, at the top of the card is a mention that collectors could receive an entire set of these cards for only three cents. Second, you needn’t worry about the company running out as the card explicitly states that more than five million of these cards were printed.

Good grief.

Now, five million is not the largest number of cards in a set printed before. After one, one estimate of T206 cards was determined to be roughly 370 million cards. But while that is a staggering number, some context is needed.

First, T206 cards were issued with packages of cigarettes. There were that many cards because, well, there were that many cigarettes being smoked at the time. Second, T206 is one of a few dozen significant baseball issues at the same time. Third, T206 cards were issued over a period of three years and, with 524 cards, is one of the largest pre-war sets ever produced.

By contrast, these cards were one type of advertising card for one type of very specific product as part of a very small set. And unlike other trade cards, which were designed for use by many businesses and products, these cards were only for Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, one of numerous types of cure all products on the market.

There were trade cards for literally thousands of other businesses and products. Five million was made for only one very specific product. Now, multiply that by, say, hundreds of other trade cards that could have been issued in similar quantities.

Consider this, too. In 1880, the population of the U.S. was only around 50 million people. Now, consider that number included babies and young children as well. Five million trade cards would have hardly been needed. Likely a reason that many were produced is, in part, because printers would give steep discounts for large quantities of cards that were printed.

Now, every trade card was not produced in quantities such as this, of course. But others undoubtedly were. After all, there were surely trade cards for more well known products that were printed that could have resulted in even higher quantities being made. The thousands and thousands of trade cards listed at any given time on eBay helps further prove the point that extraordinarily large numbers of these cards were produced.

Plus, keep in mind that these were hardly the only trade cards for this specific product. Other trade cards for Thomas’ Eclectric Oil were also printed and how many the company printed in all is unclear.

Add it all up and the junk era of cards started a lot sooner than most of us realize.

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