A trading card is a collectible card which can feature a variety of subjects including sports stars, historical figures or fictional characters from films, television shows, comic books and cartoons.
The cards usually feature an image and written information such as trivia or statistics, and are sold in packs or included as promotional items in confectionary. Many of the cards can be used to play games based around the statistics or information on each one.
The cards are designed specifically to be collectible, and are produced in sets which are then distributed randomly throughout the packs. The numbers and ratio of certain cards are reduced to make them harder to find and these can become highly sought-after.
The hobby of collecting trading cards has existed almost as long as the cards themselves, and there are numerous dealers, stores, websites and even trade shows dedicated to them.
Nearly all pre-1951 trading cards are referred to by their catalogue numbers as recorded in ‘The American Card Catalog’, a reference book by Jefferson Burdick most famous for its categorization of baseball cards.
Of all the types of cards, baseball trading cards are by the far the most popular with collectors.
They were the first ever trading cards to be produced in 1868, and remain dominant on the market to this day.
They are valued by their rarity and condition, and can be worth anything from a few cents up to millions of dollars.
Trading cards started life as ‘trade cards’, created by companies to advertise their business featuring an image on the front and their own details on the reverse.
The first of these were created by a New York sporting goods store called Peck and Snyder in 1868.
They featured images of baseball players, with advertisements for the company’s baseball equipment on the back. These cards were given away free as promotional items on the street.
During the 1870's to the 1890's, trade cards were popular form of advertising, and featured a wide range of subjects including places, U.S Presidents, animals and comic book characters. Collecting trade cards in scrapbooks became a popular hobby across the country, and manufacturers soon saw the potential for the cards as a collectible item people would pay for.
In 1886 the tobacco company Goodwin & Co started to insert cards featuring baseball players into their packets of Old Judge brand tobacco.
The cards stiffened the packets, protecting the cigarettes inside, and also boosted sales for the company. The ‘Old Judge’ series contained over 2000 different cards with new ones being discovered even today.
Some cards featured a player posing in front of a studio-created background with props, with such innovations as an action shot with a baseball suspended on a string.
In 1890 many of these 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. From this time to early in the 20th Century, few baseball cards were made.
However, in 1896 in England the first football and cricket cards were produced by tobacco companies Marcus & Company and W.D. & H.O. Wills respectively. The football cards, in a series entitled ‘Footballers & Club Colours’, featured over 100 cards.
In 1903 the American confectionary company Breisch-Williams produced a set of baseball cards to be included in their boxes of caramel.
It was the first set of the 20th century and also contained great players from the 19th century.
Then in 1907 the American Tobacco Company began to be dismantled by the U.S Government as it was in violation of Antitrust laws, and this action combined with new competition from Turkish tobacco companies meant firms once more began to produce baseball cards as marketing tools.
From this period on trading cards of all types began to be produced. In 1910 both the first sets of basketball and hockey cards were produced by cigarette companies, and other sports like boxing and golf were included in smaller runs.
A major change for the industry came in 1928 with the invention of chewing gum. The gum became a craze amongst children in the early 1930s and companies such as Goudey Gum, George C. Miller Co., and Delong began to produce cards in great numbers.
World War II
World War II saw a halt in the production of trading cards as all printing factories and supplies were used to help the war effort. In 1948 when production resumed the Bowman Gum Company and the Leaf Candy Company each created notable baseball card sets.
They also both produced American Football sets, which Bowman continued until 1956.
First baseball card sets
In 1952 the Topps Chewing Gum Company of New York produced its first ever baseball card set, and in 1956 they bought Bowman Gum, effectively ending their competition.
In 1957 they changed to a 2.5 inch by 3.5 inch card size, which became the de facto standard for baseball card sizes.
During this period Topps also produced non-sports trading cards such as “Funny Monsters” and “Mars Attacks”, and during the 1960s began to produce cards based around television shows and bands such as The Beatles.
From then until the present day, Topps have been a dominant force in the trading card business. Until 1980 they maintained the sole license to produce official baseball cards, when they were challenged in court by companies such as Donruss and Fleer.
Topps lost the ruling, during the 1980s and 90s there were a number of companies producing baseball cards including Score and Upper Deck, who created both "Certified Autographed Inserts" and ‘game-worn’ cards, both of which were innovations popular with collectors.
However, in 2009 Topps regained the license to produce official Major League Baseball cards, and in 2010 also won the license for USA Baseball cards.
Types and manufacturers
There are a number of different types of trading cards.
Companies produce them in variations to make them more collectable, and through their history there have been many innovations such as 3D cards and those featuring pieces of game-worn jerseys by famous players.
There have also been a large number of trading card manufacturers over the years, with some specializing in certain areas.
The world’s most expensive trading card
The most valuable trading card ever sold at auction is the Honus Wagner T206 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.
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