Fixing the Chaos: How to Organize a Pre-War Card Collection

Binders on Bookcase

What’s the best way to organize a pre-war card collection?

If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time or following the social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook, you probably know that I keep my cards in binders. That came after a long life of storing cards in toploaders and storage boxes. Once I hit about 20 of those suckers, I realized there had to be a more efficient way of doing things.

Soon after, I jumped into pre-war card collecting with the hopes of having one or two binders. So yeah, that didn’t really happen as I’m up to more than 20 of those now. But in using binders, I’ve cut down on the space and clutter considerably. And if you’re curious about binder storage in general, I wrote a little about it here.

Binders or not, though, collectors have a lot questions about how to organize their cards, anyway. Like anything else, there’s no right/wrong way to do it. And for anyone, I’d recommend organizing your cards in the most convenient way that works for you. Whichever method works for being able to find particular cards the easiest is probably best.

But here’s my own personal approach whether you’re using binders, boxes, or whatever.

I should note that, finally, this is more about organizing a pre-war card collection. Organizing modern cards is different because you’re dealing more with brands of cards as opposed to types (tobacco, candy, food, trade, etc) of cards. Some of the stuff will probably apply to modern or post-war vintage collecting but some will not.

E90-1 111 Wagner35w-04-red-grangeFirst by Sport … and then by Classification

I start by separating my cards, grouping them by sport. Baseball is my focus but, separately, I have binders for other sports, where practical. I have a lot of football, boxing, and tennis, cards, so those all get their own binder. I’ve got less basketball and hockey so those are in a combined binder. Same for other minor sports like track and field, cycling, etc. You generally will want all cards of a particular sport together.

Now, you may not need as many binders I have or a ton of boxes. But the idea is to separate cards out appropriately, whether you’ve got one binder/box or 20 binders/boxes. Maybe you’ve got one binder with baseball followed by pages for football, hockey, etc. Organization is always key for me.

After separating the cards out by sport, I’ve got all of my other cards arranged by type. Regardless of whether you’re using binders or boxes, this method could work for you.

Some folks may prefer to organize their cards by player or even by team. And if you’re collecting only modern stuff or post-vintage stuff, I suppose that could work. But for pre-war stuff where you’ve got all sorts of types of cards, I go the classification route. I organize my cards by type and not by player or team. That would be a bit of a mess.

For me, each type gets its own binder (or more than one, if necessary). I’ve got a binder for tobacco cards, a binder for E-Cards, a binder for later gum cards, a binder for strip cards, a binder for game cards, a binder for trade cards, a binder for postcards, etc., right down the list. I’ve then got a binder for cards of a lot of stray types, where I may have only a few cards (i.e. coffee cards, food cards, stamps, etc.).

Then What?

Binder Page

So, now that you’ve got your cards separated by binder, by box, or whatever, what’s next? There’s a whole range of ideas.

For me, I usually will start with any graded cards right up front. As I’ve discussed before most of those can be stored in the four-pocket pages that are used for postcards. I typically will put any graded cards in those pages right up front or in the back.

I then typically try to organize the cards by set/brand. Specifically, I’ll put all cards from a particular set together. So for my tobacco card binder, I’ll put all T206 cards on the same page(s), all T205 cards on the same page(s), etc. I follow that rule for all of the other binders. For example, here’s a page that I have for my T205, T206, and T207 dupes.

I typically want all of the cards from a particular set together so I can see what I have if I decide to trade or sell any. Those instances are rare for me but arranging them by type and by set just makes things easier to find.

After that, I usually end up with a hodgepodge of stuff. Cards where I’ve maybe only got one or two in a set. Or, perhaps cards that don’t even belong to a set and are singles.

However you sort those is up to you. In that case I’ll generally try to organize those by era or something — i.e. Miscellaneous 1900s tobacco cards, Miscellaneous 1910s tobacco cards, etc. But I’ll admit that I’m not even real strict about that. Sometimes they all just end up in some disorganized fashion, which at the end of the day is fine. Really, as long as I’ve got them in the right binder and then cards from the same set together, I’m less worried about the rest.

You’ve now got yourself a pretty organized pre-war collection.

Binder Page E90-1 Caramel CardsA Word About Sets

I’m mostly a set collector, so beyond all of the singles and organizing I do for those, I’ve got the issue of sorting all my sets. All of my sets are in binders and, where practical, combined into one binder.

Organizing modern sets might seem quite easy. But many pre-war sets werent numbered so people organize their sets in all sorts of ways.

Some sets, like my T206 set, have their own binder. But I also have a lot of other smaller sets combined into one, arranged by type. For example, E-Card sets are generally smaller, so I’ve got all of those in one binder. Here’s a picture of that binder. I started with E90-1 American Caramel cards (which you see here) and go right down the list in alphanumeric order (E91, E92, etc.).

I’ve got a Goudey binder for the Goudey sets I’m working on. I’ve got another gum card binder for other gum sets (i.e. Diamond Stars, Play Ball, etc.). I’ve got another binder of N-Card sets. They’re mostly arranged by type.

And when it comes to deciding the layout of a particular set, I always arrange them by the card number if the cards have those. If not, they go in alphabetically. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, though some folks go the alphabetical route for all sets (even if they have card numbers) or even arrange them by team. Not for me, but like I said, there’s no right or wrong way to do this.

As I said, there’s no right or wrong way to do this thing. But however you sort your cards, the idea is to make it as easy as possible to find what you may be looking for at any given time. As long as you do that, your organization method is perfect.

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