Collectable Cards

Posted: 20th May 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Collectable Cards

Collectable cards have their origin in ‘trade cards’. As far back as the mid-17th century businesses started to hand out cards with their details, sometimes with illustrations of their trade. Some had elaborate designs such as the one designed by engraver William Hogarth for ‘Peter De La Fontaine, Goldsmith’ showing a well-dressed lady being served in a shop. Even smaller businesses such as chimney sweeps and nightsoil men had them produced to advertise their trade. A trade card of ‘George Cordell, Chimney-Sweeper to their Royal-Highness’s the Dukes of Gloucester and Cumberland’ depicts a chimney fire. Such early cards were not intended to be collected but were meant to advertise and let potential customers know where they were situated.

By the 19th century printing methods had improved and trade cards progressed to creating attractive and interesting images so people began to collect them. Towards the end of the 19th century companies were including cards with their produce and many Victorians created scrapbooks in which to display them.

The American tobacco company, Allen & Ginter introduced collectable cards as “stiffeners” into their cigarette packets which were soft. Early cards had sepia photographs of leading actors or politicians of the day. By the 1880s cigarette cards were being produced with a picture on the front and informative text on the back and were beginning to be issued in series of 25 or 50.

By the 1890s the British firm W D & H O Wills were issuing series such as Cricketers, Builders of the Empire, Ships and Kings and Queens. These series cards were dubbed by one early collector as ‘The Working Man’s Encyclopedia.’ During WWI patriotic collections were issued but had to be passed by the Press Bureau to ensure security.

The ‘golden age’ of cigarette cards was the 1920s to 30s with companies such as Imperial Tobacco Company (W A & A C Churchman), John Player & Sons and Kensitas all producing series of collectable cards. Collections included British Film Stars, Curious Dwellings, Famous Golfers, Characters from Fiction and Engineering Wonders. Kensitas produced silk cards of flowers and flags. Cigarette cards became ‘big business’ being exported internationally in cigarette packets. Some of the major companies, for example Wills and Players, had their own studios with artists employed solely to produce cigarette card illustrations.

Three small silk cigarette cards. The left shows the british air force flag, the middle a ceramic pot, the right the flag of the prince of wales.

British flags and military badges.

The expression ‘cigarette card’ eventually came to mean any stiffened picture card even if not issued by a cigarette company as illustrated in “Thrilling Scenes from the Great War” in the Museum collection. These were issued in 1927 by DC Comics and were originally given away with copies of ‘Triumph’ comic. Chocolate companies, such as Fry’s and Cadbury’s, also produced ‘cigarette cards’.

Six cigarette cards showing pictures from world war one.

Thrilling scenes from the Great War

Eight cigarette cards of plants and gardening diagrams.

Gardening Hints (Wills Cigarette Cards)

Some collections of cards were cancelled such as Wills’ series which was planned to celebrate the coronation of Edward VIII.

Production of the cards came to a virtual halt in 1939 when paper and board became in short supply in the UK. It was rumoured that Players’ collection “British Naval Craft” issued in 1939 was being bought up by German agents to send to their U-boats. The British Government sponsored a collection of ARP ‘cigarette cards of national importance’ to give helpful hints such as ‘How to put on a gas mask’ and ‘How to extinguish an incendiary bomb.’ After the war ‘cigarette cards’ were not produced on the earlier scale.
From the 1950s some companies, such as A & B C Gum, Bassett’s and Brooke Bond, issued their own series of cards. From 1954 to 1999 Brooke Bond tea packets included illustrated cards in series of 50 such as Wild Flowers, Transport through the Ages and International soccer stars.

Eight small cards of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.

Brooke Bond Tea Cards

Four cigarette cards showing pictures of historical objects.

Treasure Trove (W A & A C Churchman Cigarette Cards)

The hobby of cigarette card collecting is known as cartophily and today there are many websites dedicated to buying and selling collections. Many early businesses which issued cards are little known today, having gone out of business before WWI. These collections are rare and therefore valuable.

Written By Dianne Smith, Beverley Guildhall Volunteer.