People get into card collecting for as many different reasons as there are types of cards. Some collect sports cards of their favorite baseball, football, and hockey heroes. Others combine their passion for sports with history by collecting tobacco cards, which is how baseball cards were distributed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Trade cards are popular with fans of the Victorian Era, lobby cards with movie buffs, and everyone from bridge players to magicians appreciates a handsome deck of playing cards.
Trade cards appeared first. Popularized after the Civil War by businesses, they offer a colorful and diverse look at popular culture and society in the late 1800s. Trade cards had actually been around since the 1700s, but the advent of lithography in the 1870s made it possible to mass-produce them in color, leading to the golden age of the antique trade card from 1876 to the early 1900s.
Trade cards typically had a picture on one side and an ad on the other. There were custom cards printed for specific products, as well as generic cards that could be used for any product. Trade cards were popular for medicines, sewing, and farm equipment, as well as a range of other products. Some rare Victorian trade cards include those advertising Clipper Ships traveling from the East Coast to California in the 1860s.
Playing cards have been around even longer. Originating in ancient China, playing cards were introduced into Europe sometime in the 14th century. The earliest playing cards were hand-painted, often gilded, and designed to be beautiful objects. Meant for gambling or playing games of skill, they were also often used as mnemonics for memorizing topics from botany to cosmology to geography.
Designers like Hunt, Reynolds, De La Rue, and Goodall standardized the look of playing cards—the double-ended court cards with crowns—in the 1800s. But one company whose name is no longer associated with playing cards in the United States is Nintendo, which was founded in Kyoto in 1889. Nintendo’s first cards were hand painted, but demand quickly brought mass production. After World War II, Nintendo licensed Disney characters for its cards to drive sales, but it had largely left the card business behind in the 1970s, when it moved into electronic gaming. Today, Nintendo still makes playing cards in Japan, and even sponsors an annual bridge tournament there.
The first baseball cards were distributed in 1886 in packs of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen cigarettes, both of which were manufactured by Goodwin and Company. In all, some 2,000 Old Judge cards featuring some 700 players from the National League and American Association were produced. Other tobacco companies that used baseball cards to promote their products included Allen & Ginter, D. Buchner Company, and Charles Gross & Co., which published cards for Kalamazoo Bats (a small cigar) and Mayo’s Cut Plug Tobacco.
Football cards followed in 1888—hockey cards did not come on the scene until 1910. That’s also the year when American Tobacco released its legendary line of T cards, featuring all the famous players of the era, from Ty Cobb to John McGraw to Christy Mathewson...
Honus Wagner was also included in that first set of 561 cards, but the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop did not approve of tobacco and sued American Tobacco to stop them from using his image on their cards. Wagner won and the cards were recalled, but a few made it to market, making the 1910 Honus Wagner one of the rarest baseball cards in the world.
Tobacco baseball cards disappeared in 1914 and were replaced by Cracker Jack cards, which are among the most collectible so-called candy cards. Finding one in good shape is difficult, though, because the cards were packed unwrapped in the box with the caramel corn, so most cards from this era are sugar stained.
The first baseball cards packed with bubble gum came along in 1933, when the Goudy Gum Company of Boston issued its Big League Gum series. George Herman (Babe) Ruth, as he was named on the card, was part of that first series (in fact, Goudy printed four different Babe Ruth cards that year), as was Lou Gehrig. One highly collectible Goudy series was called Heads Up, named for the way photos of ballplayer’s heads were collaged onto cartoon bodies. Two cards were issued for each of the 24 players in this small set, which included Joe DiMaggio.
After World War II, in 1948, Bowman became king of the baseball-card hill when it released 48 black-and-white cards—each sold for a penny with a single stick of gum. For a while Bowman had the baseball-card world to itself, but in 1951 a tough competitor arrived on the scene, Topps. Today the 1951 Topps All Stars, especially the ones of the former players, collectively known as the Connie Mack All Stars, are highly collectible.
By 1956, Topps had bought out Bowman. Fleer tentatively entered the fray in 1959, with the first of four small sets of Hall of Famers. In 1963, when it sold its first series of cards featuring contemporary players, Fleer attempted to avoid the scrutiny of Topps lawyers by advertising the gum in its packaging as a "cookie." The ruse didn’t work, Fleer was forced out of the business, and Topps was able to maintain a card-gum monopoly until 1981.