Collecting Cigarette Cards & Tobacco Silks
A couple of news stories reporting upcoming sales of baseball trading cards last week got us thinking about the origins of this prevailing collectible.
Today, trading cards, particularly baseball and other sports, are among the most popular collecting categories and worthwhile investments around.
We cast an eye back to the early days of these cards, when the word ‘trade’ stood for business rather than exchange. Tobacco companies capitalised on the natural human instinct to collect, and produced numerous series of cards in their cigarette packets, sparking the collecting revolution of cartophily.
Early tobacco trade cards continue to boast a thriving community of collectors, the cartophilists. While most cigarette cards do not command the prices that you see paid for a Babe Ruth rookie card, in fact can be worth as little as just a few pennies, they constitute a joyful and rewarding collecting hobby.
Who knows, maybe one day in the very distant future a member of the Wills’ Tobacco Company British Birds series will be as sought after as the T206 Honus Wagner.
Business trade cards in general arose out of the habit of presenting visiting cards to declare who had arrived. Companies soon saw the benefit of this method of advertising.
Tobacco companies jumped on the bandwagon during the last quarter of the 19th century onwards, and became some of the most dedicated users of trade cards to promote their products.
One upon a time, cigarette packets were flimsy things, allowing the contents to be easily squashed. Companies inserted a blank ‘stiffener’ card to prevent this occurring.
These evolved into advertising cards bearing product details, and later, decorated with images of actresses, sportspeople, scenery, animals and insects, historical figures, aviations, military, railways, cars etc. Sets, usually of around 50, were designed to be collected – a clever gimmick to encourage people to buy more cigarettes.
The fad really caught on around 1901, with 300 tobacco companies producing cards. They were designed from the start to be collected. Children would stand outside tobacconists, asking smokers for their cards. The hobby has sustained, though the practice has not, and out of it grew the culture of collectible cards that fetch up to millions of dollars at auction.
Cigarette silks were the progeny of cigarette cards. Small pieces of printed or woven satin (they are rarely real silk), these were given away free within cigarette packets in the same manner as the cards. Sometimes they were backed with card too.
Silks were also introduced as series, intended to be sewn together to form larger textiles such as quilts or table covers. Some cigarette packets included instructions for the homemakers to follow.
The largest issuer of silks in the UK was Godfrey Philips. They similarly had different subjects for each set, from animals and flowers to motor cars and railways. Military silks dating from World War I are particularly popular, such as military badges, regimental colours, uniforms, medals, flags and war heroes.
By 1922, the practice of cigarette silks was mostly obsolete, unlike cigarette cards. This makes them rarer.
Cigarette cards trade the history of mankind from the 1870s to the 1940s, during a significant time of innovation and social upheaval propelling us into the modern age. They span two world wars, the beginnings of Hollywood, track the development of the motorcar and the advance of aviation, as well as recording famous early competitive sportspeople, wildlife, even the atom bomb. This is what makes them such fantastic items to collect.
Cards and silks are relatively common. Most examples command just a few dollars, though some special ones can fetch hundreds.
Generally, cards are sold as sets or part sets rather than individual cards. Collectors set themselves the task of trading and purchasing their way through an entire set, and such a project can be extremely rewarding.
Other collectors may choose to focus on one particular tobacco company.
The presence of internet trading sites like eBay have vastly contributed to the ease and convenience of the hobby, and the availability of contacts and their cards.
Nowhere is it more true that something is worth as much as someone will pay for it. A card picked up for peanuts by one collector may have no interest for their own collection, but may be the one missing item from a set for another keen seeker.
Collect a set that depicts something you are interested in, whether that be cars, butterflies, Victorian actresses or railroads.
Reproduction cards do exist, but they generally have text on them stating that they are reproductions, so the collector does not have to worry too much about being duped. Most cigarette cards are worth so little anyway that no self respecting con artist would bother creating fakes.
Silks can be collected individually, as sets, or sometimes even as sets sewn together by industrious Victorians or wartime wives.
Some examples of cigarette cards that fetch slightly higher prices are the Taddy & Co Clowns and Circus Artistes set, fetching as much as £650 per card. These cards are particularly rare, only around 20 complete sets thought to survive. The company, were known for the excellence of their trading cards, and this set has come to be known as the ‘Penny Blacks’ of cartophily. In 1985, an incomplete set of 19 fetched £4,600 at auction, at the time a record value.
The largest collection of cigarette cards in the world is that of Edward Wharton-Tigar. The whole was bequeathed to the British Museum following his death in 1995.