Plenty of Intrigue Surrounds Rare Joe Louis Wittone Trade Card

There are several questions around a trade card of the former heavyweight world champion

For nearly two decades, the legendary Joe Louis dominated heavyweight boxing. Debuting in 1934, his career stretched to 1951 before he finished with a career 66-3 record. Along the way, Louis was the heavyweight champion from 1937 until the fall of 1950.

The majority of advertising trade cards were issued in the 19th century. But some did spill over into the 1900s and Louis found himself on that was issued for Wittone tonic.

Like many such health tonics, Wittone stated its product was good for the overall health of the body. Specifically, it touted helping with regular function of the liver, kidneys, stomach, blood, and nervous system.

That was nothing new. All sorts of companies made all sorts of claims to improve health — so much so that consumers began to be wary of them, suspecting they were often rooted in alcohol or drugs. But Wittone specifically added that their product contained no alcohol, narcotics, or habit-forming drugs. Fine.

It should be pointed out that some backs of these cards are known to be blank-backed. That has led some to wonder if they were used by a variety of businesses like most trade cards were. However, I’ve never seen them with any other business name. They could have been initially blank-backed issues and then picked up by Wittone. But I am not sure they were used by multiple businesses because, to date, I haven’t seen evidence of that.

The card’s value ranges drastically. While it can sell inexpensively and go under the radar at times because it is not well known or often even well advertised, low-grade copies usually start around $30-$40. But it also is not uncommon to see dealers asking $100 for nicer copies in today’s market.

A mysterious background

A few things make this card interesting. Besides the Wittone name on the back, a different name appears in the top border on the front of the cards — The name, “Sportsman’s Gazette” is printed at the top, along with an indication that this is No. 1 in Volume 1. That seems to allude to this card being the first in what was to be a series of cards but I’ve never seen additional cards with that label. And frankly, I’ve never even found evidence of any publication at that time with that name.

Where’s that leave us? No one can say. But given the blank-backed nature of some of these cards, perhaps they were to be distributed by a publication that never was printed and were instead used by Wittone. There are no clear answers to that.

The card’s date of issue

There’s also not a clear answer to the exact date of this issue.

There are so few ideas on that, that some collectors call this a 1930s issue while others say it’s probably from around 1940. Others even say it could have been issued later in the 1940s.

With no reference to a date on the card, or even to the Sportsman’s Gazette, this has been one of those issues that has been impossible to date thus far. It is most commonly dated as a c1940 issue but even that appears to be somewhat of a shot in the dark.

We can date the card slightly. That’s because the title at the bottom references Louis as the champion. Louis won the championship in 1937 by defeating James Braddock and held onto it until his defeat to Ezzard Charles in 1950.

Another clue is given in that the Louis pictured is relatively young. That rules out a late 1940s date when Louis looked markedly more worn. Louis is so young in the picture, in fact, that calling this a late 1930s issue is a very real possibility.

What do I think?

I’ve looked at hundreds of Louis photos from his early years to his later years. I’ve never found an exact match for this photo but, comparing it against others, this looks like a late 1930s issue to me. Still, I don’t know that you can call it that without more evidence and the c1940 date covers that time period as well as an early 1940s period.

Still, nailing down the exact year isn’t needed to enjoy this card. At the end of the day, it’s an early card of one of the greatest fighters of all time. I’d love to determine the actual date but that’s all still good enough for me.

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