Jefferson Burdick Discusses the Practice of Card Soaking in the American Card Catalog

The first American Card Catalog briefly discussed the topic of soaking cards

Card soaking is a practice that almost all pre-war collectors have at least heard of. And what few probably know is that, Jefferson Burdick, perhaps the most famous card collector of them all, said a few words about the topic in the American Card Catalog.

If you’re unfamiliar with soaking, here’s a 30,000 feet overview.

Many early card collectors glued cards into albums to display them. That was partially done to contain their collections and also partially because there weren’t many storage options available. While most cards from the post-war era can’t really be soaked without essentially ruining the card, much of the card stock and glue used in pre-war times allows cards to be safely removed from paper. It is reasonable to suggest that a great many cards residing in collections have, at one time or another, been soaked from an album.

Soaking is perhaps not fully accepted but is widely accepted enough that it is usually discussed freely. It is sometimes called, ‘giving a card a bath.’ You will find many more collectors generally comfortable with the practice than you find those that do not think it should be done. Regardless of what you may personally believe, the reason for that is because, unlike other processes which may involve the use of chemicals (which will significantly alter a card), soaking is merely putting a card into hot water to remove excess paper from the back and then drying it. That’s it in a nutshell.

And interestingly enough — Jefferson Burdick, author of the American Card Catalog, actually covers this practice.

In his first American Card Catalog in 1939 is where we find his comments on it. And, perhaps to the surprise of some, Burdick not only mentions it but seems to indicate it is standard practice.

Cards which are tightly stuck down in albums should be discounted when buying because of the labor of removing the cards and the probable damage to them. Warm water and careful drying and pressing is the usual process but some damage is unavoidable.”

That is a relatively short passage but there are several things to take away from it.

For one thing, Burdick talks about the process in terms of a ‘when’ not ‘if.’ It clearly was not a controversial topic to him and was so routine, in fact, that he even recommends the usual process. Another interesting thing I took away from this was that, he doesn’t even consider the option of leaving the cards in the book. He basically assumed that, if an album of cards was sold, the buyer would almost certainly be soaking the cards out.

Now, one thing to point out here is that, card conditions and prices were not the big deal they are today. Back then, most cards were relatively nominal, though some issues were certainly a bit expensive for the time. That is an important consideration. Had Burdick known that a card professionally graded highly would be worth the kind of money it is today, perhaps his thought would have changed.

But I’d also point out that even back then, card condition did play a role in the prices, as Burdick routinely stated in his books. Thus, the goal was to soak the cards without creating damage and lowering the prices. It is not as if condition and prices were of no regard. And whether we’re talking about a $5 card or a $5,000 card, the point is that Burdick realized that a card being soaked carefully to maintain its condition and value was extremely important.

What does that all mean? I don’t know, really. I suggest collectors will continue to be divided on the issue and, personally, I’ve always seen valid arguments on both sides of it. But if nothing else, it’s interesting to get a bit of insight into the subject from one of the earliest and most famous collectors of all.

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