Posted 6 months ago
I cannot begin to express how odd and rare this tobacco card is; but I can say it is fascinating on several levels. First, you would never see or hear ‘tobacco card’ and ‘wet plate camera’ in the same sentence. After all, the two areas don’t seem to have anything in common. Sports players and tobacco cards; yes. Political figures, celebrities, and pretty women and tobacco cards; yes, yes, and yes. Etc. Those types of crossovers are well known and documented. Yet here is a true oddity that, even after nearly 30 years of camera collecting, caught me by surprise.
What looks like a Carte de Visite is actually a 1880s tobacco card about the same size as a CDV. (As a note, I purposely cropped the bottom portion of the card that says “Duke’s Mixture” so that it couldn’t be copied and faked ... a sad and growing problem.) This Duke’s card is produced in the same manner as the famous Goodwin & Co. - Old Judge Cigarettes series: a sepia toned b&w photograph with cardboard backing. The card is dated to no later than the 1880s because Duke’s and four other tobacco companies merged to form the American Tobacco Company on January 30, 1890.
Although the image is light in contrast (common with other Duke’s cards) and there is a crease, the overall card is simply wonderful. The ‘Rubenesque’ figured woman (referring to Peter Paul Rubens’ painting style) is typical of others appearing on Duke’s tobacco cards. Her voluptuous figure and tight fitting clothes would definitely be risqué in the 1880s.
The image itself tells me that the person who created this card understood photography. While it is not unusual to find ‘cheese-cake’ cabinet images of women and cameras, what is interesting is the choice of this particular camera. Pictured is a 4-lens wet plate multiplying camera; an exotic piece of apparatus by 1880s standards. I’ve seen many pictures of photographers proudly posing next to their multiple lens cameras, but never a ‘fashion’ shot like this. Also shown with the Duke's card is a similar camera in my collection.
And there’s good detail. The woman is holding a folded dark-cloth; the thing a photographer hides under to view faint images on a ground glass. I cannot quite identify what’s in her left hand, but it looks like a pocket watch. If so, it would be used to time exposures.
In regards to Duke’s tobacco, there is lots of information on the Internet but the family history is quite interesting. To summarize, James Buchanan Duke had a modest farm that was ravaged in the Civil War. However a small quantity of bright-leaf tobacco went untouched. Duke and his two sons processed, packaged and sold the tobacco as “Pro Bono Publico.” It went well and in 1878, the family company incorporated as W. Duke, Sons and Company.
Competition drove Duke into the cigarette business in 1881: "My company is up against a stone wall. . . . It can't compete with Bull Durham [a large competitor]. . . . Something has to be done and that quick. I am going into the cigarette business." Growth was dramatic and eventually led to an industry consolidation in 1890 to form the American Tobacco Company.
As with other items in my collection, this tobacco card is a remarkable collectable with a terrific story.