Today when many collectors hear the words “tobacco cards,” they think of the T205 and T206 baseball-card sets from the early 20th century. They aren’t wrong to make that connection—those were tobacco cards—but the history of tobacco (cigarette) cards includes more than just baseball.

Cigarette cards were first produced in the 1870s as a means to stiffen flimsy cigarette packs. Initially they were blank until an American businessman thought advertisements should be placed on them. Soon, companies began putting everyone from kings and queens to actresses and baseball players on cards. By the mid-1880s, manufacturers decided to make sets of cards with pithy advertisements on the backs. It was a good way to build customer loyalty since many customers felt compelled to complete their sets!

The craze was not confined to the United States. In England, cigarette companies such as W.D. & H.O. Willis and Three Castles also released tobacco cards. The first Willis set was issued in 1895 and was called “Ships and Soldiers.” Taddy & Co also produced an early collectible set entitled “Clowns and Circus Artistes.”

Back in the United States, the novelty of pictures on cards captivated the general public—newspapers still tended to be picture-less. They also appealed to the large portion of the population that was illiterate. The list of American companies that manufactured tobacco cards ballooned, as the giveaway quickly became the norm.

The year 1887 was an important one for tobacco cards as both Allen & Ginter and Old Judge released sets that are extremely collectible today. Both featured baseball’s best player at the time, Cap Anson—Old Judge cards showed him in a suit and tie while Allen & Ginter’s had him in full uniform, bat in hand. Another memorable card from the Allen & Ginter set is the one of John L. Sullivan. The first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, Sullivan is shown shirtless and appears ready for a fight.

Sets at this time weren’t necessarily limited to a single sport. For example, other tobacco cards of the era featured Boy Scouts, billiards players, and Native Americans, which were issued by a host of companies, including Goodwin, Ogden, and Ramly.

As a group, tobacco cards are extremely difficult to find in decent condition—a requirement for many serious card collectors—as they have been weathered for more than 120 years a...

The most famous tobacco cards, of course, are the T-sets. There were five T-sets issued: T201s, which featured Mecca Cigarette cards; T202s, which were packed with Hassan cigarettes and had multi-player cards; T204s, which came in Ramly and T.T.T. tobacco packs; T205s, which were known as the “gold border” cards and were issued by various brands; and, finally, the famed T206 set.

The T206 set was released between 1909 and 1911 and had 525 cards (389 Major Leaguers, the rest depicting players from the Minors) in packs of cigarettes put out by 16 different companies. These cards were known as the “white border” cards, and they remain highly collectible today.

In the T206 set is the famous Honus Wagner card, which is considered the pinnacle of card collecting. According to some historians, Wagner did not want his name on cigarette ads going to kids, so he requested his cards be pulled from the set. Consequently, very few Wagner cards made it into circulation, which makes the T206 Wagner extremely rare. There are other uncommon cards in the set, such as the Eddie Plank, but nothing compares to the scarcity of the Wagner.

Sadly, this legendary set was one of the last tobacco-card sets made. World War I brought paper rationing in the United States and across the world, causing cards of all kinds to disappear for quite a while. There was a brief revival by companies like Player’s Cigarettes in the early 1930s featuring cricket players and airplanes, but that was short-lived. Some companies, especially the British manufacturers Allman and Black Cat, attempted to reintroduce tobacco cards in the 1950s, but by then gum and candy companies were the biggest publishers of cards.

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Even the casual collector is aware of the T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card. The world's most valuable card sold for a record $2.8 million in 2007. Legend has it that less 200 cards of the Hall of Fame shortstop were printed because either Wagner objected...Read more