Collecting Cigarette CardsCigarette cards were issued during a significant time in the history of mankind, 1870s-1940s. These encyclopaedic cards captured the Precambrian explosion in 20th century innovation and social upheaval that propelled us into our modern age. World Wars, the first Hollywood movie stars, motorcars, the Wright Brothers' first flight, famous golfers, soccer stars, scarce wildlife and the atom bomb are all vividly portrayed on these frameable, miniature masterpieces.
Even the cigarette cards were the creation of rapid improvements in colour printing technology and competitive pressures of an expanding free market. It's possible that the powerful tobacco manufacturers who issued these humble, everyday items unwittingly accelerated information democracy itself at a time when books were still expensive to the average person.
The cigarette cards were designed from the start to be collected, perhaps becoming more addictive than the product itself. Even after a hundred years later, cigarette card collecting has surged ahead thanks to the ease of trading on the equally simple but innovative eBay website. At the start of the new millennium, a Honus Wagner card became the first cigarette card ever to exceed a million dollars, and one of the most expensive items to be sold on eBay. It is the cigarette card's uncanny ability to tap into the interests of a wide cross-section of society and inbuilt collectibility that have ensured its survival over other collectors' items.
The trading card pre-dates the cigarette card and originated from the 17th century tradesman's cards. Advances in colour printing technology in the mid 19th century led to a rapid increase in trading card production. The trading card became a popular promotional tool among European firms, especially Au Bon Marche' and Liebig.
The first cigarette packets were very fragile and so a thick card was inserted to stiffen them. During a period considered by many to be one of the most innovative in the history of mankind, an enterprising US businessman decided to print a colourful advert on the "stiffener" card. The tireless evolution of the cigarette card was driven by the highly competitive and creative tobacco markets. Soon cards were issued on subjects appealing to smokers, such as glamorous actresses, sport, warships etc. Firms soon realised that they could strengthen customer loyalty by issuing sets of beautifully illustrated and informative cards, playing on man's instinctive desire to collect and for order and completeness.
At a time when the average person could not afford books, and newspapers contained no photographs, the attractive and encyclopaedic cigarette cards were very popular. At the beginning of the 20th century, more cards were issued with cigarette brands than for any other product and this is probably why trading cards are often referred to as "cigarette cards" even though there is no connection with cigarettes.
Initially, there were many small independent tobacco firms who issued cigarette cards but, as in many situations, a small group of powerful tobacco firms gradually emerged, striving for mass production and cost cutting. This was bad news for the cigarette card whose quality, it is generally accepted, declined as the years went by. The cigarette card era came to a sudden end at the beginning of WWII, due to severe paper rationing.
The vacuum left by cigarette cards was partly filled by bubble gum cards and tea cards. It is generally accepted that the design of these post WWII cards favoured mass production over quality. There is currently a collectors' card renaissance. Some modern day collectors' card manufacturers are listening to what many collectors want and producing beautifully illustrated cards on high quality card stock once again.