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It's on the (cigarette) cards - By Ian A. Laker

When you mention cigarette cards, most people think of cricketers, footballers and film stars of the 1930s. This was the heyday of cigarette card issues, when virtually every packet contained a little picture and the major companies such as Wills and Players had their own studios and artists devoted entirely to the production of cigarette cards. It was big business, and massive print-runs often ran into hundreds of millions for each series.

That's why there are still lots of them around today - sets can still be bought for around $25 upwards, which is a major reason for their popularity for those of us wishing to indulge in nostalgia for Hollywood legends, sporting heroes, military hardware, famous trains and graceful ocean liners from a golden age.

In the beginning

In fact the hobby goes back to the 1890s, to a time when cigarettes were wrapped in paper packets. Manufacturers began inserting pieces of card to protect the contents, quickly realising that these would be useful for advertising their products. Soon these were followed by pictorial sequences that would build up into sets. The object was to encourage repeat purchases and establish brand loyalty, and the subjects chosen were those most likely to appeal to the predominantly male customer base. Beautiful young women, sportsmen and soldiers dominated the earliest series, followed by ever more diverse topics in the early 20th century as companies competed for trade by offering something new.

Remember this was before the days of cinema, radio or TV, let alone the modern technological wonders we now take for granted. Newspapers carried few illustrations, and living standards were much lower. For most smokers, therefore, the cards they collected from their packets were their window into the world, serving to educate, excite or amuse - they were colourful, informative and free!

Many of these early cards were from firms whose names would mean nothing to a non-collector; little companies that went out of business or were swallowed up by the big boys before World War I. And it is these cards, few of which have survived, that are often the most valuable.

World Record

Early in 2007, a world record price was paid in America for a single cigarette card - US$2,35m. This card was sold later on in the year for another world record price of US$2.8m. The card in question featured Honus Wagner, one of the great names in U.S. baseball at the turn of the 20th century. Wagner was a dedicated non-smoker and objected when America's biggest tobacco corporation planned to picture him on a cigarette card without his permission. Threats of legal action prevented its release, but a few slipped out, and it was one of these that stunned the collecting world when it was auctioned.

The cards that never were

The Wagner cards were not the only ones never to see the light of day. Britain's biggest maker, W.D. & H. O. Wills of Bristol, prepared a series of 50 cards to celebrate Wellington's victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, but when the date for issue came up in 1915 their release was cancelled so as not to offend the French, who were British allies fighting the Germans. In a series of Musical Celebrities, all the German subjects were withdrawn and substituted by lesserp-known individuals from other nationalities. Another Wills' casualty was a series of 50 cards prepared to mark the coronation of King Edward VIII. Edward's abdication in 1936 put paid to this and the cards were destroyed - all except, that is, for a handful of sets presented to the firm's directors and top management.

Now for something different

The 1920s and 1930s are generally regarded as the golden age of cigarette cards. Competition was fierce and rival firms were constantly looking for something different to stand out from the crowd. Players and Wills went in for adhesive-backed cards and offered special albums to stick them in. So many were produced that there are still plenty around today, and they fetch only a few dollars. Another idea was for cards that made up into a sectional picture of a work of art; a map, or an historic event such as the 1937 Coronation Procession. Some makers developed cards with push-out sections that could be made into models, whilst others came out with sequences of silk-embroidered flowers, cards in miniature frames, bronze plaques, metal charms to hang on a bracelet - even little gramophone records that could actually be played!

Cards at war

During World War I, many patriotic collections were issued including Recruiting Posters, Infantry Training, Modern War Weapons, Military Motors, Allied Army Leaders, Britain's Part in The War and so on. All were subject to government scrutiny to ensure no secrets reached the enemy, and 'Passed for publication by the Press Bureau' is printed on many of these cards. In the run-up to World War II, out came cards demonstrating the nation's apparent military strength and preparedness for action - Britain's Defences, the RAF. at Work and Life in the Royal Navy to name a few. Aircraft of the RAF cards showed the latest fighters, the Spitfire and Hurricane ('the performance of this machine is an official secret' was the warning). It is rumoured that German agents were buying up Player's 1939 British Naval Craft in London to send back to U-Boat crews. Meanwhile the authorities sponsored a series of Air Raid Precautions, 'cigarette cards of national importance' endorsed by Home Secretary Samuel Hoare, with useful hints on how to put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb. How effective or otherwise these proved in the blitz we shall never know, but they raised public awareness.

A new dawn

Paper shortages halted card production in 1940 and cigarette cards would never be issued on the same scale as before the war, but even so there have been quite a few over the years, starting with the blue and white pictures of film stars and footballers printed in the sliding trays in Turf Cigarettes, and progressing to many series of popular cards in packets of Tom Thumb, Doncella and Grandee Cigars. Recent anti-smoking legislation has ended any hope of new cards with tobacco products, but we will continue to welcome new trade card issues.

Trade cards, or 'trading cards' as they are often called, are picture cards issued with non-tobacco products and they have a distinguished history that pre-dates even the earliest cigarette cards. On the continent of Europe, one of the first to recognise the sales potential of cards was the Liebig Meat Extract Company, which over a period of 120 years from 1872 onwards issued no fewer than 1800 different series. In the 1920s and '30s, firms such as chocolate makers Frys and Cadburys, tea companies such as Typhoo, periodical publishers etc. mimicked their tobacco counterparts by producing a regular flow of picture cards. But it was in the post-war environment that trade cards really came into their own, filling the gap left by the demise of cigarette cards. From the 1950s onwards came a flood of 'trade' cards issued with tea, confectionery, biscuits, cereals, ice cream and so on. Among them were companies such as A & B C Gum, Bassetts and Brooke Bond, who regularly released one set after another, year after year. There has been a notable trend for the original collecting age group to begin collecting them again, and they can be satisfyingly inexpensive with some Brooke Bond cards from the 1960s and 70s priced at around $10 or $15 for a mint set.

Today's hobby

Remember The Saint, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Doctor Who? They all have huge followings and collectors are snapping up new sets as they come onto the market. The same goes for Star Trek, Buffy, Disney, Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. Cult TV series and blockbuster movies are sure to be pictured on cards. That goes for football, too. There are hundreds of different sets to chose from, some going back to the days of Matthews, Finney and Lofthouse, others bringing us right up-to-date with the latest Premiership players and stars such as Lampard and Rooney.

The thing is, card collecting is a living hobby with many new series being produced each year attracting a new generation of collectors. Whatever your age or interests, you're going to be pleasantly surprised by what cards can offer. Collecting cards has come a long way since its pre-war image and people from all walks of life are now keen collectors.

Reference:

Ian A. Laker is the Managing Director of The London Cigarette Card Co Ltd on Sutton Road in Somerton, Somerset, UK. You can contact him on +44 1458 273 452 or email cards@londoncigcard.co.uk. Have a look at the web site - it's terrific: www.londoncigcard.co.uk

This information first appeared in Issue 48 of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.