Cigarette cards are small illustrated cards, contained inside packets of cigarettes, which can feature a variety of different subjects such as sportsmen, celebrities, the military, historical scenes, animals and royalty.
They were produced in sets or series, of which there may be any number, and traditionally featured an image on one side, with written information such as trivia or statistics on the reverse.
Cigarette cards were produced in large numbers between the later years of the 19th century up until the mid-20th century, and were a successful marketing ploy by tobacco companies designed to inspire brand loyalty.
They became highly popular as collectibles, and started the trend for collecting trading cards which grew into the multi-million dollar industry it is today.
The hobby of collecting cigarette cards is known as cartophily, and those who collect them are cartophilists.
Collectors often focus their collection on cards from a particular company or brand, or cards on a specific topic such as cricketers or historical monuments.
Cigarette cards are graded by their rarity, condition, age and subject.
The most comprehensive guide to these prices is Murray's Guide to Cigarette and Other Trade Cards, a catalogue produced by dealer Murray Cards since 1967. It has become widely accepted as the industry standard guide for cigarette cards, in the same way that The American Card Catalogue has for baseball and trading cards.
The history of cigarette cards is, to a large degree, also the history of trading cards in general.
The first cigarette cards
In 1871 the American tobacco company of Allen and Ginter began inserting pieces of card called ‘stiffeners’ into their paper packets to protect the cigarettes from being damaged.
These cards soon featured brand advertisements, and in 1886 companies began producing a series of collectible cards in an effort to promote brand loyalty.
These cards depicted actresses, Indian Chiefs and boxers, and were designed to appeal to male consumers.
They were soon followed by Goodwin & Co and British advertising cards appeared in 1888, produced by W.D. & H.O. Wills. At first these British cards only featured text, but in 1894 Liverpool tobacco firm Ogden’s produced the first purely pictorial set known as the ‘Guinea Golds’.
A year in 1895 later Wills produced their first pictorial set ‘Ships and Sailors’, and followed it up in 1896 with the first sporting set ‘Cricketers’ in 1896.
The cards were hugely popular, in a period where most working class families could not afford books and newspapers featured very few pictures. The cards were dubbed "The Working Man's Encyclopedia" due to the manner in which they brought famous faces, historical and geographical images and facts to the masses.
As with baseball cards in the United States, sporting cards were the most popular in Britain. The first football cards (Marcus & Company’s ‘Footballers & Club Colours) appeared in 1896, and today the early football sets are some of the most valuable cigarette cards on the market.
In 1890 many of the competeing American tobacco companies combined to make a single company called the American Tobacco Company. Since there was no more serious competition, making insert cards was unnecessary as a promotional tool, and from this time to early in the 20th Century, few cigarette cards were made in the United States.
However, in Britain business was booming.
From about 1901 cigarette cards really caught the public’s imagination and thousands of different sets were issued by over 300 tobacco companies.
Wills issued over 175 different sets alone, and it is thought there were over 11,000 cards issued solely depicting the subject of cricket. Companies such as John Player & Sons and Taddy & Company produced many notable sets, and in 1907 American cards reappeared when the U.S government began to use antitrust laws to dismantle the American Tobacco Company and competition between brands (from home and abroad) began again in earnest.
The World Wars
The First World War brought a halt to card production on both sides of the Atlantic due to a lack of materials, but the early 1920s saw their reintroduction. However, consolidation of the tobacco companies has started on a much grander scale and fewer cards began to be produced as smaller competing brands were swallowed up by the larger corporations.
The quality of cards began to deteriorate, and competition from other products such as confectionary, chewing gum and tea (which all offered their own sets of cards) began to decrease the popularity of cigarette cards.
The advent of World War II led all factories to focus on essential war work, and this event combined with wartime shortages of paper and ink eventually brought about the demise of the cigarette card.
The post-war years brought with them a changing attitude to tobacco, and legislation prevented companies using marketing techniques aimed at the young (such as cards).
In the United States the popularity of trading cards boomed, but the market was dominated by gum companies and eventually the cards were sold as items in their own right.
Types and manufacturers
Main article: List of types of cigarette card
Main article: List of cigarette card manufacturers
Main article: List of cigarette card collecting terms
The world’s most expensive cigarette card
The most valuable cigarette card ever sold at auction is the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card. The card, issued by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911, depicting Pittsburgh Pirates' player Wagner, is also the rarest in the world, with only 50 – 200 cards believed to have been produced.
On September 6 2007 it was sold to an anonymous private collector for $2.8m.