Rewards of Merit Among the More Unique Pre-War Cards

These cards highlighted good behavior and date back to at least the 1700s

Rewards of Merit aren’t cards that get a whole lot of attention from sports collectors these days. The cards are collected a good bit in non-sports circles but my guess is that most sports-only folks don’t have any in their collection.

Essentially, rewards of merit were cards that recognized a particular achievement. Most often, they were given to children by a teacher either in school or Sunday School. Typically, they were given to acknowledge a child doing something well. Perhaps memorization of something. Doing well on a particular activity. Maybe even achieving perfect attendance. I expect these were given out for all sorts of reasons.

Sometimes, they were mere certificates. Other times, they could be redeemed for something. In any event, these cards can be incredibly early relics dating back to the 1700s, according to Jefferson Burdick of the American Card Catalog.

Subjects (Including Sports Cards)

N. Orr Reward of Merit Baseball CardMost of these cards were non-sports related. Because of that, they aren’t typically pursued by most collectors seeking sports issues. Recently, though, I managed to find this one depicting a baseball game.

The one shown here, in fact, can even be considered to be part of a set. That is because other ones with the same style are known. Cards from this ‘set’ include different scenes in the middle, an American flag off/globe/anvil to the left and flowers/book off to the right. The top includes the “Reward of Merit” title and the bottom has lines for listing a student’s name and the name of a presenter (presumably, in most cases, a teacher). The bottom also has the name ‘N. Orr Co.’, the likely printer or artist creating these cards.

Other similar ones for sports exist, though they are certainly rare. I have seen Reward of Merit cards for sports, such as baseball and soccer, and more minor recreational activities, such as ice skating and fishing. But sports depictions on these are very tough to find.

The great majority of these cards depict generic images of children or people, objects such as flowers, scenery, buildings, etc. Most seem to be blank-backed, though there are exceptions to that. Some blank-backed ones also included the name of the recipient and distributor if there were no lines on the front for those designations.

The cards, by the way, come in all shapes and sizes. And the quality of them varies a good bit, too. That is unsurprising as different teachers/distributors would have had different resources. One similarity on most of them is that they typically included a place for person’s name (the person being recognized) and, for the ones affiliated with school/Sunday School, sometimes a teacher’s name. Most also have the name ‘Reward of Merit’ printed on them.

This site makes a good point that should be noted, too. Some cards may have names of students and teachers with the same surname because many 19th century children were taught by their parents at home.

American Card Catalog Classification

Many collectors without a copy of the American Card Catalog would be surprised that these are actually a type of item cataloged by the book’s author, Jefferson Burdick. Burdick classified the cards as a minor card type, calling them Y-Cards. Other Y-Cards included scraps, bible cards, name cards, and cards of affection.

Realizing there were so many different types of rewards of merit out there, Burdick basically treated these like trade cards, cataloging a few and then essentially giving up. Instead of cataloging specific sets, Burdick identified five primary types, assigning classifications:

  • Y1 – Early types dating back to 1830
  • Y2 – Small woodcuts pasted on early lithographs
  • Y3 – Dollar bill types
  • Y4 – After 1880 advertising card types or overprints
  • Y5 – Last day of school programs

Burdick’s classification of these seems okay. But if we’re being technical, there could be some overlapping, too.

For example, many of these cards were given by teachers for students in school. I expect there are some that could fit in to the Y1 and Y5 category. Still, despite the overwhelming number of these issues, I would expect most could fit into at least one category.


Benjamin Franklin Reward of MeritSo the million dollar question — what are these things worth?

These cards are often considered as a form of trade card and, unsurprisingly, like trade cards, these prices vary quite a bit.

Many of these have survived over the years and eBay typically has several hundred of them for sale at any given time. Many are $10 or less. Some, even, can be bought in lots for as little as $1 per card or so.

Others can sell for hundreds of dollars. The more valuable ones are typically ones that feature sports or the ones that are particularly old from the 1830s, 1840s, or 1850s. And while it would be difficult to find or prove, a Reward of Merit card given to a famous person would certainly be sought after. The baseball one shown above, for example, is typically in the $100-$200 range in decent shape.

Ones that picture a historical figure, such as a president or some other famous person, would also typically be more valuable. However, there are exceptions to that. For example, one popular card that is somewhat common is one featuring Benjamin Franklin (shown here). While sellers may ask quite a bit for this card, it often does not sell for much more than $10. Others with famous personalities seem to command less interest than might be expected.

A final note to value is that cards without names written on them will obviously be seen as better conditioned ones and, subsequently, more valuable ones. But ones with names filled in are also desirable and some collectors may even prefer them as they tell a bit of a story.

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