Dating Pre-War Cards is not Always Easy
Trying to determine a pre-war card’s specific origins can be difficult
Figuring out when a modern card was printed is not generally terribly difficult. There are some oddball issues that can be a little challenging. But most cards today either have a year printed on them or statistics from a player’s last year. And even if they don’t, with the internet and collector groups, it becomes quite easy to find the origins of when a card was created.
Pre-war cards, of course, are a bit different. For starters, dates were not printed on most. And while some did ultimately include statistics, many cards did not.
Fortunately for us, much of the legwork needing to figure out when cards were printed has been figured out over the years. Jefferson Burdick did the lion’s share of the work with the American Card Catalog. And since then, other cataloging resources and collectors have done the grunt work to figure out when cards were printed.
But that hasn’t always been easy because fewer records were kept on cards that were printed, in many cases, more than 100 years ago. Today, cards are scanned, graded immediately, and have articles written about them. There is a wealth of documented information for modern cards.
In the pre-war days, cards were of far less importance. They were collected by children and adults, but few kept track of when they were printed, where they issued, and how many might have existed. This information was lost over time. A good bit of the information that was known about them has been discovered since but many gaps still remain.
Those gaps can sometimes be filled in by guesswork. A common way to try to date sets is to look at all of the players featured and what teams they were with at the time. That often will narrow things down a good bit and, sometimes, to a specific year. But even that is not always fool-proof.
For one thing, players were routinely featured on cards after their careers had ended. Sometimes, a player’s status (active or retired) was noted in a biography. But others, it was not. One such example of many is Babe Ruth’s 1939 African Tobacco World of Sport card, shown here. The multi-sport set is known to have been produced several years after Ruth’s retirement but his bio on the back still talks of him being a famous baseball player, written very much in a present tense.
It goes without saying that this can quite obviously lead to the incorrect dating of sets.
Another problem is that cards were sometimes printed later than believed or intentionally reprinted. For example, sometimes applying for patents took longer than expected, leading to sets being delayed. This was common in game card sets where initial funding was sometimes difficult. The Mails Game Card set is believed to be a 1924 issue. However, that is not conclusive. After an in-depth study into the game with the family of George Groves, the game’s founder, it was learned that he began putting the set together in 1923, seeking a patent, and did not start advertising the set until 1925. The exact year of production is unknown and could have realistically come in 1923, 1924, or 1925.
And as mentioned, sets were also reprinted later. One of the best examples of that is seen in a set of boxing cigarette cards. Cohen Weenen issued a set of boxing cards in 1912 that is one of the more famous international issues, produced in the UK. A full 15 years later, the same set was released by another tobacco company, Hudden in 1927. Some of the fighters in the original Cohen Weenen set were not even still active by then. Some sets, like these, or like the Imperial Tobacco Sports and Games of Many Lands set, which was issued a few times during 1929 – 1935, prove that cards were repeatedly recycled for different companies.
Those are examples of sets that were distributed by different brands. However, even sets that were offered by the same distributor were sometimes printed in more than one year. The Overland Wrappers set is a great look at one of these types. The set is commonly called a 1936 set or a 1938 set. But given the players that appear in it, it looks much more like a set that was produced from 1936 through 1942. And determining which years all of the wrappers were issued is impossible.
Fortunately, through decades of research, old publications, and records, we’ve been able to piece together a lot of missing dates on pre-war cards. But many mysteries still exist and are not likely to be solved without more conclusive information.