If I were to call you a cartophile or cartophilist, it would mean you collect what?
- Sugar packets
- Cigarette cards
The answer is C, although there is a name for those who collect sugar packets and that is sucrologist.
Recently added to the NSLM archives is a donation by Merri Ferrell of 73 vintage cigarette cards featuring racehorses, jockeys, and owners. Thirty-five Wills’s Cigarettes letterpress cards and 38 small photographic reproductions from King’s Cigarettes (“The Larger Cigarettes”!). Both sets are representative of their time and place.
We’re spoiled when it comes to “freebies” in our packaging, whether it’s a color-changing spoon in a cereal box or a ring in a box of Cracker Jack (“That’s nice to know…it gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing.”). This kind of giveaway (which, technically, you have paid for) establishes a loyalty between customer and company, “collect all five!” they tell us, encouraging us to keep coming back for more. It was this mindset that helped sustain the cigarette card trend for decades in the early-to-mid 20th century.
Where did it begin, though? In the late 19th century, a package of cigarettes could easily be crinkled and damaged. To solve this inconvenience, blank cards were inserted into the packs to help keep the shape thus salvaging the contents. A keen observer noted that it would be beneficial for all to include an advertisement on the card. From there, and as technology improved, it evolved from simple logos to images. Eventually, it would get more elaborate to include accompanying information on the back (or verso) of the card.
The major cigarette distributors created limited series focusing on a specific theme, and the range of themes was extensive, from flowers and musical instruments to royal families and branches of the military. Particularly interesting topics I came across included Strange Feminine Hairstyles and Animals in Fancy Costumes. If anyone has a picture of those, please pass it along.
The various series could have as few as six cards or as many as fifty. The buyer, or perhaps even other members of the buyer’s family, would commit to completing the entire set, forcing him or her to continue to purchase the product. He or she is then “rewarded” with a new card or, disappointingly, a duplicate, in which case, another pack needs to be bought.
Cigarette cards were so popular, people were not above breaking the law in order to get their hands on them. As one Scottish newspaper reported in 1923, six boys landed in court when they were caught breaking into shops via the skylight to steal the cards (but thoughtfully left the cigarettes).
As Ben Johnson wrote on the Historic UK website, in the early 20th century, “cigarette cards had established an almost fanatical following with thousands of different sets being issues by more than 300 cigarette manufacturers, all competing with each other to sell their products and establish brand loyalty.”
World War I required the use of paper materials, which caused a temporary end to the fad. However, the interwar years proved to be the heyday of cigarette cards, Johnson referred to it as “the Golden Age of card collecting.” With the onset of World War II, production again came to a halt but this time, there was no resurgence. After the war, the major companies agreed to no longer include the popular token. Though this was the death of the cigarette card proper, there was an upswing in trading cards that were packaged with household goods. These were similar in nature to their predecessors, featuring athletes, but also included the futuristic subjects of the 1950s and 60s, like Out in Space.
The cigarette cards now in the NSLM archives are a wonderful snapshot of the UK in the early 20th century. This series of Wills’s Cigarette cards shows steeplechase horses and jockeys from 1938.
When Mars Technical Librarian Erica Libhart first opened the package to show them to me, the first card greeting me was this one:
Battleship is near and dear to my heart having been a previous employee of James Madison’s Montpelier. Home of Marion duPont Scott and the Montpelier Hunt Races. I would recognize those baby blue and pink silks anywhere. The verso includes the name of the jockey “B. Hobbs” and a paragraph about their historic win at the Grand National. Battleship was the first American winner at the in 1938.
[Quick plug: see Battleship’s portrait with stallion manager Edward Washington in Thrill of the ‘Chace: Steeplechase in Art, opening September 9.]
Other notables in this set include Kellsboro Jack with D. Morgan up, an action shot of Portobello with P. Beasley up, and Bookseller with G. Richards up.
The second set is from King’s Cigarettes and are small pack-sized photographs. They include photos of known sporting enthusiasts, like King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England, and the Aga Khan.
Being photographs, these are able to show snapshots of racing scenes, like this one of Beachway in the foreground.
If you’d like to see these cards yourself, no need to break in any skylights. We’d rather you call the Library to make an appointment.
A variety of sources assisted with this article, as I am no cartophile. For more information on the history of cigarette card collecting, please visit the below site at Historic UK: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Cigarette-Cards-Cartophily/#:~:text=by%20Ben%20Johnson,cards%20is%20known%20as%20Cartophily.
The book A History of Cigarette and Trade Cards by John Broom (2018) was immensely helpful.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org