Dave Campbell contacted me after reading a post on The Baseball Card blog. He’s been collecting baseball cards non-stop since 1981. He has recently created a collection of 19th century Allen & Ginter cards. I talked with him at length about how he got interested in these cards and what it took to assemble the collection.
Q: What prompted you to begin collecting 1880′s Allen & Ginter cards?
A: I’m a big fan of retro-style baseball cards. For the past few years, Topps has taken a classic baseball card design and used it in a set featuring current players. The Heritage and Topps205 sets are a couple of my favorites. It was a natural that I’d also collect Topps Allen & Ginter product that was modeled after the original N28 “World’s Champions” set from 1888. For 2007, Topps added a “Flags of All Nations” insert set that was based on another original Allen & Ginter design. I thought they were pretty cool and started building the set.
While I was searching eBay for cards I needed, I stumbled across some original Allen & Ginter cards. I wasn’t really familiar with any non-sports set older than the Star Wars sets from the 70′s and these old cards fascinated me. I knew all about the Allen & Ginter N28s from Bert Sugar’s reprint books from Dover publications. I used to play with my King Kelly and Cap Anson reprints when I was a kid, and I liked the artwork on the cards. I was surprised to learn that the baseball players were a tiny fraction of the cards in those sets and that there were many other kinds of cards in that style.
The biggest surprise was that these 19th century cards could generally be picked up for a few bucks each! I always thought of Allen & Ginter cards as unattainable, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. It shocked me to see an original flag card selling for about 10 bucks. I abandoned my 2007 flag set and started trying to get some of these old cards instead. I won one of them, an N30 “World’s Decorations” card on eBay, then I won a couple of flag cards soon after. At that point I decided I should stop and make some kind of game plan for myself if I was going to start a collection of these cards.
After doing a little homework, I found out that Allen & Ginter inserted about 60 sets into their cigarette packs and 34 of them were lithograph cards similar to those baseball cards I liked. They are cataloged as N1 to N34 in Jefferson Burdick’s American Card Catalog and I decided to focus on them since they are all standard tobacco card size and are all lithograph art cards.
I also decided instead of picking one set and trying to complete it, I’d instead do a type set of one card from every set so I’d have a representative card from each. That way it would be a little easier on myself since there would be less cards to find, and I wouldn’t have to hunt down any specific cards if I didn’t want to. All I had to do is find a nice one from each set, and I could choose the cards I liked best. There are many different gorgeous designs among the sets, and it’s cool to see them all side by side. I also put one other limitation on myself, I decided to set a price limit of no more than $20 per card. A retail box of Topps Allen & Ginter costs $19.99, so that seemed like a good limit for me to spend on any one of these cards.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): You’ve really stumbled upon a great idea Dave. I’ll bet you’ll have some competition once people know the real things can be had at reasonable prices. What challenges or obstacles have you encountered in putting this collection together?
A. (Campbell): The first challenge that I faced was figuring out how to actually win any of the auctions for these cards. I could see from the cards that were listed on eBay that many of them were selling in the 5 to 15 dollar range, but I didn’t have any real clue as to what their value was. You can’t exactly go to the store and pick up a Beckett Nineteenth Century Non-Sports Card monthly price guide. In fact, the best and most current guide I’ve found is from 1999 and out of print! Plus the majority of people out there who were bidding against me for the cards are rabid non-sports collectors who know exactly what they are doing. I didn’t really have a chance at first, and I must have lost dozens of auctions before getting fed up and overbidding just so I could win something. After watching enough auctions though, I finally got a feel for it, and now I have a game plan when I’m after a certain card.
There are three things I look for when buying these cards: The card should be cool, cheap, and easy to win. The best is when it is all three. When I find a cool card that I really like, I just go for it and do a max bid on it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I bid my twenty bucks on a George Washington N15 “Generals” card and then watched the bidding rise to well over a hundred. Then I did the same thing with the card of the Duke of Wellington from the same set, and I ended up being the only bidder and got it for 99 cents. Gotta love cheap cards! I also take advantage of easy wins. If there is a nice card up for sale with a “Buy It Now” Offer, I take it. Same thing if I find a good one with no bids. A lot of times a seller who specializes in non-sports cards will post a large group of auctions at once. The expert collectors will snap up most of them, but there will be at least a few that last without any bids that can be gotten cheaply.
The other main challenge I’ve had is simply finding examples from some of the sets. I was initially worried I’d never find affordable cards from the N28 or N29 “Champions” sets because the prices were usually higher since they were associated with the baseball players in the set. I just won both of them in the past week though, both in my price range, and one of them is a real beaut. It’s a billiards player with crazy eyes and a handlebar mustache that would make Rollie Fingers jealous. Now I’m having challenges finding other sets. When I first started tracking the vintage Allen & Ginter auctions, there seemed to be a ton of the N24 “Quadrupeds” cards up for sale. Since I’ve actually started buying them though, I’ve seen maybe a handful.
A couple of other sets have proven to be very hard to find as well. The N12 “Fruits” set is causing me problems because it seems like all the examples I’ve seen for sale are all graded for some reason. It doesn’t help that it is probably the only A&G set that I just flat out don’t like and I don’t want to pay a premium for a graded example. Another one, N23 “Songbirds”, is just flat out scarce. I’ve seen only a dozen or so since I started collecting these cards. I’d actually like to get the Brown Thrasher card from that set since I’m a fan of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team, but I can’t seem to find any of them out there, let alone that one.
The good thing is I’m not someone who’s real picky about the condition of their cards. I won’t hesitate to get a card with some horrible flaw that would make a grader at PSA faint. In my collection so far I have one card that’s trimmed, several missing paper, a couple with extra paper on them–perhaps the paper that’s missing from the other cards?–creases, tape, rounded corners, and two that have their original owner’s name written and stamped on them. These things are one hundred and twenty years old, you have to expect that they would have gained some character along the way.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): What are your favorite 19th century Allen & Ginter cards?
A. (Campbell): My absolute favorite is my N33 “World’s Smokers” card of the Old Planter. Old Planter is sort of the Allen & Ginter official mascot, he’s found on a lot of the original A&G packaging and is even incorporated into the design on the back of the N30 set. Topps even used him in their baseball card set, he can be found on the back of some of the mini cards from the set–without his cigarette of course–and he’s actually blowing a bubble on their Bazooka gum cards! The one I got is extra special because it has a stamp that states “THIS BELONGS TO JOE. K. DUCK.” on the back. I don’t know who Joe is, but I’ve seen a bunch of cards with this stamp on it from the seller I bought it from, so Mr. Duck apparently loved his cards. This of course knocks the PSA grade down a few points, but I think it’s much cooler to have a little piece of Joe’s collection.
I’ve been purposefully targeting cards that I like, or that have some kind of meaning (however strange) to me. I’m from Georgia so I overbid for the Georgia state flag. It’s nice to see a Georgia flag that doesn’t cause a lot of protesting. I chose the Red Snapper card from the N8 “Fish from American Waters” set, mainly because I didn’t care much about a card of a fish and it reminded me of the Wheel of Fish scene from Weird Al Yankovic’s movie UHF. When I got the card though the lithography was fantastic. The art is incredibly detailed and they used a silver metallic ink on it that makes it look like there are little scales on the fish. It’s an absolutely beautiful card that is a tiny piece of art.
Another favorite is a card of William M. Singerly from the N1 “American Editors” set. Mr. Singerly was the editor of The Philadelphia Record, and ran for governor of Pennsylvania. He lost the election and died a few years later mostly from smoking too many cigars. If the history of this obscure man, with his own trading card isn’t fascinating enough, he also is the spitting image of Frank Thornton as Captain Peacock from the BBC comedy Are You Being Served! I thought that was too funny to pass up, and I even created my own card for Captain Peacock in his honor.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): These are amazing pieces of ephemera, and your descriptions are excellent, especially the riffs about Mr. Singerly and Captain Peacock. Hilarious. It makes me want to go out and start a collection of A&G cards. What’s your advice to achieving success as a collector?
A. (Campbell): The main thing is to collect something you truly enjoy. Yeah, Gem Mint Hall of Fame rookie cards are nice and expensive and might put your grandchildren through college someday, but if you don’t have any fun collecting them you may as well put your money in the stock market and be done with it. It’s good to try new things and see what you like and don’t like. It took me about 20 years to figure out what I really wanted to collect, and once I figured it out I found out about nineteenth century non-sports cards and got hooked on something new.
Once you figure out what to collect, you really need to do your homework. Find out as much about the subject as you can, such as the history, value, grading and whatnot. Then it will be easy to know what you’re looking for when finding new items for the collection. If you’re interested enough to collect something, you’ll probably want to know all about it anyway. I’ve had as much fun just learning about all these crazy old sets as I have had actually getting the cards.
The thing that has helped me the most is to make a plan when collecting. For a while I just collected stuff randomly and it wasn’t very satisfying. I was kind of a trading card zombie, just getting whatever product was new out there and never really sticking to completing anything. Once I started making definite choices about what I wanted to collect–setting up a plan on how to collect and then following through–I’ve enjoyed myself a lot more. This type set is a good example of that. I set some strict limits on what I was going to collect and how I was going to collect it, but I also left it open enough so I could be creative and have some fun with it.
A. (Campbell): I got most of my information on these Allen and Ginter cards off the Internet. Much of that information was gleaned from the auction listings themselves in the descriptions of the cards. That’s how I learned the names and ACC designation for the sets, what they looked like, what the approximate value was and so forth. One thing that helped me was saving images of cards I found online with a description of the card. That was a big help for reference before I found some other resources with that information. I tried doing some Google searches on the cards but there’s not really a lot of info out there. That’s part of the reason why I decided to blog about building the type set, so the next poor sucker who gets addicted to these cards will have at least a little info to work with.
There is one Internet resource that is absolutely incredible though, and that is the Vintage Non-Sports Chat Board. It is full of long time collectors and the amount of knowledge in there about this stuff pretty obscure corner of card collecting is astounding. I’d say most of my in depth knowledge of these cards comes just from reading the posts on that board. Plus board member Dan Calandriello has put together a web page with some amazing galleries of these old non-sports set. It’s possible to get lost for days looking at these neat old cards. The main book I would recommend is American Tobacco Cards. It’s out of print, but it’s pretty easy to find a used copy. It is a really good overview of all the non-sports tobacco issues out there. The price guide probably isn’t very useful any more, but it’s still the best reference I’ve found for finding detailed information about tobacco cards. There is also a magazine called The Wrapper that focuses exclusively on non-sports sets, but I’ve only read some of the online articles.
For storage, I’ve been keeping the cards in semi-rigid card savers until I post them online, then I transfer them to a plastic sheet to keep in a three ring binder. I’ve been printing out the eBay descriptions of all the cards to keep as a reference and they are all in the binder as well. Part of me is tempted to buy a vintage Allen & Ginter tobacco tin to keep them all in–loose of course–but I haven’t quite gone that far yet. Once I complete the set, I kind of want to display them in a frame or shadow box or something. I haven’t quite figured out though how to mount them on there without trashing them as much as the original collectors who pasted them into a scrapbook. I would like to display them somehow, as they are all very pretty cards.
Q. (Weil/ephemera): Thanks, Dave. It’s been a real treat to feature your collection. I appreciate the time you took to provide such thoughtful answers.
Do you have an article you’d like us to publish as a guest column in The Collectors Weekly? Let us know.