A cigarette card of Boots Mallory, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
From the beginning of time, people have collected things, be it books, coins or people, in order to feel important, to be connected, to grow and to learn. Through the 1800s, most collectors were wealthy, acquiring great art collections, libraries and horses, both as a way to diversify their wealth and to demonstrate superior knowledge about a subject. Marketing and merchandising soon opened the joys of collecting to those of more modest means.
As Maurice Rickard notes in “The Encyclopedia of Ephemera,” “Cigarette cards were among the first items of ephemera to be produced specifically for collecting.” Several historians point to tobacco tycoon James Buchanan Duke brainstorming the idea of employing them as a marketing tool in the mid-1880s to sell more cigarettes.
Duke, along with his brother Benjamin Newton Duke, established the firm which became American Tobacco Company, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world in the late 1800s – early 1900s. He focused on new ways of marketing and advertising tobacco products to expand sales, spending lavishly on billboards, newspapers, magazines and theatre programs to burn his products’ names in the mind of consumers, realizing that “Tobacco is the poor man’s luxury.”
In the mid- to late 1800s, tobacco companies stuffed blank pages in cigarette paper packages as cardboard stiffeners, quickly employing them as a promotional tool illustrating other products for sale. Duke, in a moment of inspiration, conceived the idea of enticing customers to buy more cigarettes by including a colorful illustrated card of a famous actress or ballplayer in every package. The biography of Duke, “Tobacco Tycoon,” quotes merchant Asa Lemler as saying, “As I look back on it now I think this one stunt, more than any other, really put the cigarette over with the public.”
Companies created sets of 15 to 40 or 50 cards, stuffed one to a package, with scrapbooks available for purchase to store and exhibit the cards, creating a collecting craze among consumers to complete a set. In a way it could be called an adult vice version of Cracker Jack. Early subjects illustrating the chromolithograph cards included cheesecake images of “actresses,” and he-man poses of baseball players. The recto (front) of the card contained the lovely decoration, with the verso (back) featuring some small nugget of educational knowledge, in a way, an early flash card.
The little cards quickly became miniature pieces of art, as corporations hired professional artists and writers to produce gorgeous images and accurate information, a “collectable” even at the time of manufacture. Subjects soon included ships, animals, sports, automobiles, military leaders, flowers, plants, royalty, and theatrical and movie stars.
In fact, many early performers modeled for the cards in an opportunity to be seen, getting their names and faces in front of the public. The February 2, 1895, Los Angeles Times even quotes from The Philadelphia Record concerning this subject: “She longed to go upon the stage, And hoped some day she might be starred, But now, alas, she’s quite content, To pose upon a cigarette card.”
The companies soon moved into using four-color photo-mechanical processes to produce images, a practice which eventually spread to other industries like candy companies, bookstores, theatres and the cinema. American tobacco companies drastically reduced production of the cards around World War I, never returning to their high output and eventually ceasing production in the 1930s, while British and Commonwealth countries continued production into the 1960s.
Today, cigarette cards are one of the more affordable fields of memorabilia collecting, with a wide variety of subjects and beautiful images to choose from.