The home of the Cartophilic Society of Great Britain

What is it that we collect?

What is it that we collect?

1. Cigarette Cards, Trade Cards, Trading Cards… What are they?

If you are on the website you may have read a little about the Cartophilic Society and what it is that we do as an organisation but what exactly is it that we collect? With the launch of the CSGB’s new website I wanted to explore this a little and talk about the origins of the cards themselves and how they have changed over time in both form and function to become what today we often call ‘trading cards’.

I shall start by looking at some early ‘tradesmen’s cards’ issued nearly 300 years ago and talk about the development of the ‘trade card’. Moving toward the end of the 19th Century we can look at a specific type of card known often as the ‘Cigarette or Tobacco Card’ before concluding by looking at the cards issued between the end of World War 2 and present day.

I appreciate that it may come over as a little formal but I hope to give you an interesting read and perhaps spark some discussion! A few of the subjects I haven’t been able to cover here are developments in printing methods, social and business history, Victorian scraps, baseball cards, silks – the list goes on! However, if you are interested in the history of cards I would suggest reading some of the titles in our reference book page; submit questions in the forum or of course just borrow a book from the CSGB library!

2. The Birth of the Trade Card

Collectable cards as we know them today have a history dating back to the mid to late 19th Century with the earliest datable cards being issued in the 1870s. However, to understand the difference between trade cards, cigarette cards and trading cards I shall go back a little further and start by looking at their precursors over 150 years earlier. It’s perhaps worth saying at this point that although cards have been issued across the world; the examples referred to here will centre on Europe and North America.

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Fig. 1 – Richard Hand – ‘Chelsey Bunn Maker’ (sic.) by William Hogarth

Some of the earliest examples we have seen were issued in 18th Century London (with the earliest known in the UK dating even earlier to c.1630!), and though London of course doesn’t necessarily reflect the world’s attitudes to advertising at the time; it is almost certainly indicative of a problem common to many businesses around the world – the need to provide a means of advertising a product or service and to direct potential customers to their premises. One problem faced in London and other European cities was that many properties in 18th Century London simply had hanging signs as opposed to numbers as we see today.

The furniture store founder Sir Ambrose Heal, who researched early trade cards said that at a time where potential clients were not fully literate it was these trade signs that would be depicted on tradesmen’s cards or bill headings [serving] as a visual reminder of the address of the establishment (Heal 1925:3).  However, from around 1718 hanging signs began to be removed (Malcolm 1810:394-395) and from 1762 numbering was considered the norm with the last streets in London to keep their signs being Wood Street and Whitecross Street until their removal in 1773 (Heal 1925:15).  It’s possible to see when looking at early examples of these cards that as these signs fell out of use the designs often included more elaborate and ornamented representations of the shopkeeper’s wares’ (ibid.)

As time progressed and the designs became more elaborate these advertisements attracted the attention of some very talented artists and the design quality of the early trade cards was given increasing focus (see fig . 1 for a design by William Hogarth). This was a very important development as their function was to attract custom and especially, the patronage of the wealthy. Even Chimney Sweeps and Nightmen (collectors of night soil) often produced stylish illustrated cards (see Bodleian Library 2001 and Fig.2). It’s possible to see then that the cards were beginning to move away from what Heal called the ‘straightforward announcement of wares’ or a utilitarian picture of a hanging sign to remind people what to look for in the street and were arguably beginning to draw on what we might today call brand associations with artists creating quite grand designs for even the most humble profession.

One thing that is crucial when considering early examples such as the 18th Century is that these cards were not made to be collected. That is not to say men such as Samuel Pepys didn’t keep collections of them but they were not inserted into products nor were they numbered or inherently grouped in any way to urge members of the public to seek out specific examples.

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Fig. 2 William Woodward – Nightman

To call these early issues advertising or trade ‘cards’ is widely accepted but it is worth noting that it was very rare to find these early advertisements to be stiffened in any way and the reinforced variety on pasteboard were almost exclusively a Victorian phenomenon (Heal cites only two examples as early as 1780 that had been stiffened (Heal, 1925: 1)). In that respect then they are not ‘cards’ in the traditional sense of the word but despite that they were almost certainly an advertising medium that formed the roots of what in the 19th Century became pasteboard trade cards.



3. The Victorian Trade Card

The 19th Century saw key developments in printing methods. For trade cards the invention of the chromolithographic printing method by Alois Senefelder in 1801 was one of the key developments that led to a shift away (albeit a slow shift) from the black and white wood cut and letterpress cards that had come before. In England especially the advertising cards were still seen by many as prestige items and so engraving was preferred (Bodleian 2001); in the USA however lithography flourished, its first recorded use was for some sheet music in 1820 but printing in large quantities was not seen until 1840 and beyond (Burdick 1960:3).

Where in the 18th Century we saw heraldic devices and directions to shops; the 19th Century saw a crucial shift in the way cards were consumed by the recipients/collectors. Cards were no longer constrained to simply telling a potential customer about the location of a shop and the products sold – companies began to use images on their cards that had less to do with their product or shop and instead focused on creating an attractive image that people would want to keep. A shoe maker for example may choose an image of a bird or a rural landscape (see fig. 3). This shift reflected the way the cards captured the public’s imaginations as well as the social context of the time. Laird (2001:62) tells us that ‘in a culture not yet saturated with manufactured images, this accessibility evoked widespread excitement and acquisitiveness, and particularly when pictures were free because they carried advertisements’.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time but towards the end of the 19th Century companies started to issue ‘insert’ cards. Although these were still trade cards it was the way they were given to the public that is important. Cards began to be inserted into packets of a particular product in order to encourage further sales. Much in the same way that the loss of hanging signs and the development of new printing methods marked key milestones in the history of collectable cards; this too marks another milestone in the development of cards as we know them today.

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Fig. 3 – J. C. Wahl Shoemakers – A Victorian Trade issue that shows a trade being advertised with no illustration of the product itself

Already collecting trade cards; the public responded positively to manufacturers that inserted free cards into their products. Whether it was tea, chocolate, bread or of course tobacco; countless million cards rolled off the printing presses around the world. From the 1870s onwards many Victorians used to use these images to create elaborate and decorative scrap books of images by gluing them down into an album (Howsden, 2000). At a time when we didn’t have the internet, television or radio these cards soon became the ideal medium to provide a generation with images of celebrities, animals and birds from around the world, military leaders, sporting figures and any other subject that captured the public imagination. Between 1870 and 1939 companies selling a wide range of products around the world capitalised on this phenomenon. Of all the products that issued cards though; we could argue that tobacco in particular led the way.

4. Cigarette Cards

In the case of tobacco in particular the insertion of a card was borne more out of necessity than to increase sales. The soft paper packets containing the cigarettes left the contents vulnerable to damage and so a ‘stiffener’ was included. These early cards often featured sepia photographs or woodburytypes of leading actresses, politicians and celebrities of the day. Thus, the size of the cigarette card in particular was dictated to a great extent by the size of the packet that it was inserted into. 19th Century Allen & Ginter cards for example are seen in small sizes (c.68 x 37mm) from packets of 10 cigarettes or larger for packets of 20 (c. 82 x 72mm).

In a similar way to the Victorian trade cards these cards were sought after by the public as for many it was their only way to see other countries, exotic animals or soldiers and medals from around the world. One early collector is reported as saying that the late 19th Century was a time ‘with no newsreels, no roto sections, no picture newspapers. A good cigarette picture was no mere plaything for a boy. It was life’ (Jamieson 2010:17). As with earlier trade cards then these pictures were not ephemeral adverts of a product but something a little more significant – cards carried knowledge and information on wide range of subjects to millions of people at a time when literacy and education was the exception rather than the rule.

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Fig. 4. An early card issued by William Duke

While we know that James Buchanan Duke was one of the first to use images of leading actresses of the day to promote his cigarettes in shop windows; it has been said that it was Edward Bok in 1878 that was the first man to suggest the format that nearly all cigarette cards followed for the next 50 years. Bok is said to have ‘picked up a cigarette card which had been thrown down in the street showing a picture of a famous actress of the period (see fig.4. for an example) with the reverse side blank. He suggested to the firm who printed the cards that if a 100-word biography were given on the backs of the cards, describing the subjects pictured on the front, they would prove far more interesting, and his idea was immediately adopted (Cruse c.1945:2).

By the end of the 19th century it had become commonplace for cards to be issued in series of 25 or 50 cards. Indeed, by around 1900 issuers such as Ogdens began to issue hardback ‘slip in’ albums for people to store and display their collections and albums in a variety of formats would continue to be issued as long as we saw cigarette cards. When we reach the Edwardian era we start to see cards with a picture front and an explanatory text on the back becoming the standard format. Indeed, the size and format remained largely unchanged for over a century and arguably set the template that the vast majority of cards would follow up to present day.

It was during the two decades of the 1920s and 1930s that cigarette cards in the UK became what might be termed today a ‘marketing phenomenon’ (Howsden, 2000). The cards were issued around the world in their millions and the once hard backed albums became a far more straightforward paper affair and some of the cards were issued with adhesive backs ready to go into the album (see John Player & Sons and W.D. & H.O. Wills for examples). This move by manufacturers to issue cards with ‘sticky backs’ illustrates a clear knowledge of the way the public kept and stored the cards. We had moved away from a scrap book of mixed advertisement cards and towards storing cards in sets.

It was arguably the sheer volume of cards that were inserted into packets of cigarettes around the world and the standard size and format that other products sought to replicate that meant for many people, regardless of whether the card was issued with cigarettes or not – it was a ‘cigarette card’. Even today you may find people calling any card measuring c.67 x 36mm a ‘cigarette card’ even though it may have been issued with tea or chocolate.

When asked ‘when did they stop being issued?’ or ‘why did they stop being issued?’ the answer is surprisingly simple. In 1939 as war broke out across Europe, Britain experienced significant paper and board shortages. This meant that issuing cigarette and trade cards in their millions became untenable and so production ceased (indeed if we list all the series by tobacco companies based in the UK they stop unanimously at 1939). While the 1950s and 60s did see tea and bubble gum companies issuing insert cards (particularly Brooke Bond and A&BC Gum); cigarette cards as we knew them were never issued on any significant scale again.

5. Commercial issues – trading cards

From the 1990s up to present day, the cards we see are predominantly those that are produced and sold in their own right as collectables. We could argue that today is the age of the ‘trading card’ as cards are seldom issued with other products anymore (although it does still happen) and so trade cards in the traditional sense I’ve talked about up to now are becoming increasingly rare to find on the high street.

Some of the most popular sets in the history of the hobby have inspired new generations of similar sets. Despite the cards no longer being issued with bubble gum there are thousands of baseball cards issued every year as commercial issues (indeed thousands may be an understatement!). The 19th Century American tobacco firm Allen and Ginter – famous for being one of the earliest issuers of cards as well as having produced some of the most beautiful and highly collected cards in the hobby – has been resurrected in name only to issue cards of a similar design to one of their most famous sets of the late 19th Century (see ‘Champions’ Burdick Ref: 28). The famous set entitled ‘Mars Attacks’ issued by Topps is still being added to with new artwork and sets that both add to and pay homage to the original.

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Fig. 5. Wizards (1999) ‘Pokemon Game’ – Charizard 1st Edition

Many modern trading cards are simply series of images from film, television, the world of sport etc.; in fact in many ways their format and theme is often no different  (if only larger and printed using modern methods) to predecessors a hundred year ago. Some however are designed specifically so that collectors can play a card based game with them and so have another dimension to trading card collecting – Collectible/Trading Card Games or ‘CCGs’ or ‘TCGs’. We know that children did play games with cigarette cards in the 1920s and 1930s but it is the information displayed on the cards as opposed to physically using the cards to flick at others that is crucial in this case! Pokemon would be good example of the latter type and more recently in the UK Topps’ Match/Slam/Hero Attax though perhaps the most widely recognised CCG is called ‘Magic the Gathering’ (MTG) (a topic that has websites, apps and forums dedicated to it across the world!). We could write books on each type of card but as this is an introduction I’d recommend looking online at some of the sets mentioned above for more information!

So, although the cards inserted with another product to incentivise sales still do appear, they seem to be fewer and further between. However, trading cards are still being issued in their millions around the world and their appeal is still seen in both young and old collectors alike. When some look at our gallery it may seem strange to place 18th Century engravings next to a modern trading cards but I hope having read this summary you will agree that though personal taste will govern what you like in a card they share common roots and they are all worthy of study and time. As with any article you read on the site, if you have any comments or questions or want to know more then please just get in touch!


Bodleian Library (2001) ‘A Nation of Shopkeepers’, Article online at –
Burdick, Jefferson R. (1960) ‘The American Card Catalog: The Standard Guide On All Collected Cards And Their Values’ (Pennsylvania: Kistler Printing Company)
Cruse, Alfred J. (c1945) ‘All About Cigarette Cards’ (London: Perry Colour Books Ltd.)
Heal, Ambrose (1925) ‘London Tradesmen’s Cards of the XVIII Century’ (London, Batsford)
Howsden, Gordon (2000) ‘Introduction’ in ‘The World Tobacco Issues Index – Cartophilic Society of Great Britain’
Jamieson, Dave (2010) ‘Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession’ (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press)
Laird, Pamela Walker (2001) ‘Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing’ (Baltimore, MD: JHU Press)
Malcolm, James Peller (1810) ‘Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London During the Eighteenth Century; Including The Charities, Depravities, Dresses, and Amusements of the Citizens of London, During That Period’ (2nd Edition, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme)

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