The Endless Supply of Early Sports Comic Postcards Means Low Prices
The early 1900s saw a major increase in postcard production — and many of those were comedic and sports-related
When it comes to affordable pre-war sports cards, postcards are probably at the top of the list. Sure, all sorts of valuable postcards do exist. Often, the most expensive ones feature actual athletes. And there are, of course, many postcards depicting actual baseball stadiums. But the majority of these early sports postcards feature generic subjects and many of those are downright inexpensive — particularly a large amount that are categorized as Comic Sports Postcards.
Postcards are a bit like trade cards in that they appear to be limitless. There is a slew of postcards out there that exist and even focusing on the sports-related ones is still a daunting prospect.
How numerous are these postcards, exactly? I’m not sure anyone could tell you. I focus almost entirely on pre-war cards and I’m constantly seeing new ones I’d not discovered before.
According to Jefferson Burdick in his American Card Catalog, postcards were first used in 1861. But a monopoly of sorts existed where only the post office could produce post cards that could be mailed for one cent. Ones could be produced privately but they actually cost two cents to mail, so you can imagine which ones were more popular (It took the Private Mailing Card Act in 1898 to even the playing field, and that ultimately opened the floodgates for all sorts of postcards soon after that).
But why are there so many? Well, mail was the primary way that people communicated before the invention and widespread usage of the telephone. People wrote — a lot. And when they were done writing, they wrote some more. They wrote to family, friends, and even for business correspondence. And while full letters were obviously the primary mode of communication, postcards were great for brief correspondence.
I love reading the backs of postally used postcards — ones that included a message (these often, by the way, will sell for less than postcards that are unused). The writing styles, of course, were quite different. Some sent postcards with every inch of space covered with a message. Others merely wrote a line or two. And some even sent them without a message at all, only wanting to pass along a card with a picture on it. There are a lot of postcards because they were used by so many people.
And after that, the floodgates opened. For sports postcards, a large amount were produced from around 1905 until about 1920. They continued after that, of course, and are still produced to this day. But the ‘heyday’ of sports for sports-related postcards seems to correspond to that time period.
Burdick tried to keep track of the comedic baseball sets. The American Card Catalog has a solid accounting of set releases that featured actual players but he only scratched the surface when it came to the generic sort of comic postcards that did not. Burdick recorded a dozen baseball sets under the PC798 Comic Sports Postcard sets but there are so many more of these sorts of postcards — particularly ones not issued in complete sets.
Some that Burdick mentioned are fairly well known ones. For example, the FAN-IE set from 1916 is one of the more common types that he identified. Shown here, these postcards feature a baby with skin that represents that of a baseball. As ones that Burdick catalogued, these are ones that carry a bit more value. But they are still very affordable, often starting around $10.
Other popular comic postcards catalogued by Burdick were three sets of Baseball Lovers, featuring real people but not real baseball players. These postcards depicted male and female baseball players or fans with love as a theme. Burdick recorded three producers of these cards — Colonial Art, Roth and Langley, and an Anonymous issuer.
These cards had pictures of subjects with a specific title that was baseball-themed. Pictures sometimes were a bit risque for the time but certainly nothing that was too over the top. Here’s one that pictures two female fans showing off their calves with the title, “Who Wins.”
These cards are quite collectible, too, and with real people dressed up as baseball subjects, they also start around $10 each. If baseball isn’t your thing, either, there are different sets with similar layouts and themes in other sports such as football and tennis, too.
And then, of course, as mentioned, there are a lot of comedic postcards that were not catalogued by Burdick.
Postcards often utilized artwork or cartoon drawings as opposed to pictures of real people. And this is really where the bargains are. You can find all sorts of sports-themed cartoon cards that are legitimately from the pre-war era for as little as a few dollars sometimes.
I‘ve even found them at bargain prices from postcard dealers that don’t specialize in sports. Those dealers often are setup at flea markets and other similar environments with boxes of postcards asking $1 for each.
You won’t always find them that cheap and, trust me, I’ve sifted through boxes of them at flea markets and come away completely empty handed many times. But you can sometimes find a few sports cards in those that make it worth the trouble.
Keep in mind, too, that these types of humor-related postcards cover many other sports, too.
Football is one that is at the top of the list. There are numerous university-themed postcards depicting fans or generic players. College-themed stuff in general was quite popular in that era. Tobacco companies were issuing cards, such as the T51 Murad College sports cards, inside of their products, and other items such as leathers, felts, and mini-blankets (small pieces of cloth, really) were also created that featured different colleges and universities.
Classifying those all as comic-themed issues doesn’t really work. But many certainly do fit that mold, such as this one produced by R.F. Outcault, which is actually part of a multi-sport series. The postcard here is for Yale football, as indicated by the blue ‘Y’ pennant. Cards such as these can command a little more, starting around $10 or $15, simply because they picture a real team.
Another type of comedic relief sports postcard were ones classified as Vinegar Valentines cards.
I’ve written about these sets before. What are Vinegar Valentines?
Most people these days are unfamiliar with them. They were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s and most have long since died out around the time World War II ended. But essentially, they were the anti-Valentine’s Day card. These were cards and postcards that were meant to be insulting to specific individuals. And some of them were sports-related. Often, they had a poem of sorts on them.
It is important to note that the ‘Vinegar Valentine’ name isn’t a specific brand or artist. Rather, that’s the type of card they were referred as. Sometimes, these types of cards could be part of a specific set. But the Vinegar Valentine name is a genre and not the actual name of a set of cards. Vinegar Valentine cards could be either greeting cards, postcards, or other generic types of cards.
Non-Sports Vinegar Valentines cards are very cheap and the sports ones are not much more expensive, either, usually starting around $5-$10.
Another popular type of football card in the comedy section are ones that were produced around Thanksgiving.
Much in the way that people send Christmas cards today, sending Thanksgiving greetings via postcard was quite common in the pre-war era. These cards often depicted all sorts of subjects but many have a football theme — often which, the pictures are humorous, such as this one featuring a young boy playing football against a turkey defender.
Thanksgiving football-related postcards range in price a bit but they are also easy to find starting around $10.
Other popular sports, such as basketball and hockey are represented, too. Same with boxing, golf, tennis, and a lot more.
Again, declaring which is a comedic postcard and which ones merely depict a sport without intended humor can be a little tricky. Many were intended with humor in mind but some just picture artwork of generic subjects. But the exact classification, really, is less important anyway.
The point is that these types of sports postcards are somewhat plentiful. And because there are so many that depict generic subjects, that has been one of the key drivers in keeping the prices down. You can search for them and quite easily find many in the $5-$10 range. If you’re willing to buy in bulk, you can even get them cheaper than that, if you don’t mind ones that are postally used or in prime condition.
Looking for a place to start in terms of collecting pre-war cards on a small budget? Postcards are a nice option.