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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Trade Card Place

Trade Card Place

Ben Crane's excellent reference site on Victorian trade cards. Includes a scrapbook containing hundreds of beautifu… [read review or visit site]

Bubblegum-cards.com

Bubblegum-cards.com

The gum is gone, but the cards are going strong... 2,500 of them in 38 categories. From 'American Beauties' to Elvi… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Star Wars Cards

Vintage Star Wars Cards

Paul Holstein’s impressive collection of vintage Star Wars cards from 1977 to 1984. Includes everything from PSA … [read review or visit site]

World of Playing Cards

World of Playing Cards

A full house of great images and reference information on vintage playing cards. Browse cards by country and subjec… [read review or visit site]

DXPO Playing Cards

DXPO Playing Cards

This Dutch site showcases a wonderful international collection of old playing cards, with themes as varied as the P… [read review or visit site]

Baseball Cards 1887-1914

Baseball Cards 1887-1914

Roll up your socks for this Library of Congress collection showcasing hundreds of players on colorful early basebal… [read review or visit site]

The Baseball Card Blog

The Baseball Card Blog

Ben Henry's lively vintage baseball card blog, started in January 2006, offers hundreds of great posts on (and pict… [read review or visit site]

Cardboard Junkie

Cardboard Junkie

Dave Campbell's in-depth blog on old baseball (and some football) cards lives up to it's motto: 'do cards, not drug… [read review or visit site]

Old Cardboard

Old Cardboard

Check out this well-organized collection of 500 sets of baseball cards, each over 50 years old. Browsable by type a… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Football Card Gallery

Vintage Football Card Gallery

This great database of pro and collegiate football cards from the 1950s and 1960s offers scanned images of cards fo… [read review or visit site]

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Non Sports Cards: Tobacco, Gum and Candy

Tom Boblitt moderates this extremely deep, collaborative site dedicated to non-sports cards (tobacco, gum and candy… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Scarlett Tally Ho Playing Cards Gold Gilded Limited & Display Decks!! Kings WildGold Gilded Scarlett Tally Ho Playing Cards Kings Wild Jackson RobinsonEncarded Tendril Ascendant Handmade Limited Edition Playing Cards Paul CarpenterAntique Vintage Exclusive Coles Production Swap Cards Large Lot1950's Vintage Authentic Hermes Cassandre Playing Cards Paris France 2-decksTiffany & Co. Playing Cards Set 2 Full Decks Still Sealed New In BoxVictorian Scrapbook Victorian Trade Cards Watertown Ny Santas, Dogs, Cats Etc.Vintage Aviator Poker Playing Cards 1950s -- 12 Decks, New, Sealed W/tax StampsVintage Edison Mazda Playing Cards Complete Egypt Set 8 E 227 Maxfield Parrish Antique 1880s Scrapbook Victorian Trade Ad Cards Die Cuts Black AmericanaThe Virts Virtuoso Playing Cards Trilogy All 3 Decks Rare Out Of Print Brand NewScarlett Tally-ho Limited Edition Playing Cards By Jackson Robinson Kings WildVintage Victorian Large Huge Trade Card Lot Early Advertising 80+Original 1863 Civil War Store Card Trade Token - Yankee Robinson CircusBrick Of Uspc Steamboat Playing Cards -- Sealed, Mib, Made In Ohio DecksVintage 53 Card Deck Of Vargas Girls Playing Cards W/box.Scarlet (scarlet) Tally Ho Playing Cards With Display DeckEmpire Playing Cards Lee Mckenzie Kickstarter53 Vargas Girls 1950's Playing Cards.... Complete Set ...near Perfect C.g. Heckert 3 Baseball Cards Victorian Undertaker Trade Cards Zenith Signature Series Encarded Rare Playing Cards 489/1000 Brand New SealedLate 1800's Wm Deering Reaper Mower "skull" Trade CardOriginal William Deering Pre Ihc Foldout Trade Victorian Trade Card Binder MowerVintage Casino Playboy Playing Cards Orange Brand New Not Drilled VhtfVictorian Scrap Book Die-cut Dogs Animals People Chromolithographs 100's Cards2013 The Man Who Fell To Earth -trade Cards -very Limited Edition Sketch CardsComplete Classic 53 Card Deck Of Vargas Girls Playing Cards W/box." Send Em In !" Baseball Card A Victorian Undertaker Trade Card Baseball Card A Victorian Undertaker Trade Card C.g. Heckert. "go"Rare Vintage Deck Odd Bods Folio Society Playing Cards Non-standardBig Lot Over 200 Used Vintage Greeting Cards Fronts Only Xmas Birthday Baby Etc.Vintage 606 Congress Bridge 2 Deck Red Box Of Playing Cards Art Deco SealedGreat Lot Of 113 Vintage Valentines Day Cards!! Adorable!!! 1940' -50'sVintage Valentine Lot Of 14 Cute Children's Original Valentine CardsDouble Deck Kem Playing Cards In Plastic Case: Lighthouse DesignBaseball Card A Victorian Undertaker Trade CardVintage Fred Harvey The Great Southwest Souvenir Playing Cards In Case Complete Antique Trade Advertising Card Heinz's Keystone Sweet Pickles World's Fair Vintage Burleson Sanitarium Playing Cards Complete With Box & JokersLot Of 50+ Vintage Christmas Cards. All Unused! Great Condition! Big Lot Postcards Antique Variety + Unique Ones + Trade Cards - Rare Vintage Key To The Kingdom Transformation Playing Cards 1992Fully Labled Sniders Catsup Bottle And Weird Mechanical Trade Card *1891A009 Authentic Hermes Logo 2-set Mini Trump Cards Deck Playing Cards World's First 3d Playing Cards W/ Working Gears Dale Mathis Kickstarter New RareVictorian Trade Card - Eclipse Wind Mill - 3 Panel FoldoverNational Card Co Tennis No 144 Playing Cards Deck W Box Palmer Cox Brownie JokerWhite Ltd Playing Cards By Ellusionist | Perfect ConditionVintage Deck Of Advertising Playing Cards Patent Cereals Co. Complete With JokerBrown's Iron Bitters 1883 Mechanical Revolving Calendar Trade CardLot Vintage Unused 1940s 50s Greeting Cards Die Cut Watercolor Little And Cute Baseball Pitcher On A Victorian Undertaker Trade Card C.g. Heckert. "a Curver""Meeder & Chubb - Designers And Engravers On Wood - Trade CardRare Magic Con 2012 Playing Cards Deck By Dan And DaveDavid Blaine Split Spades New (black) Playing Cards Linoid Finish Rare Swap Cards Playing Cards Stunning Horses 50 Cards Lot Of 2 Deco Decks Of Imperial King Press Playing Cards Original Case Complete Prada Carte Da Gioco Playing CardsHuge Old Paper Ephemera Lot Old Photographs Magazines Baseball Cards Prints MoreVintage Nice Among The White Mountains New Hampshire Souvenir Playing Cards Deck