Collecting trade cards has been a hobby and a passion for many people for decades. In fact, this practice is older than you think. You may think it really took off at the time of Babe Ruth when baseball was at its peak and legends of various sports walked the Earth. As plausible as it may seem, the history of trade cards goes way back to the 1700s and even earlier. It was made popular by many businesses after the Civil War but the advent of lithography made mass production of the colorful trade cards possible and increased their popularity.
Trade cards originally were inspired by society and the culture of the late 1800s and the golden age of antique trade cards was between 1876 – early 1900s. Trade cards were designed in such a way that they had a picture in one side and an ad on the other side. Not only were generic cards available that could be used for any product, there were also some cards that were custom printed for specific products. A range of products like farm equipment, products for sewing and medicines were popular on trade cards. Some rare trade cards feature the Clipper Ships that traveled from the East Coast to California in the 1860s.
Although trade cards, which are the pre cursor to collector cards, started becoming more popular in the 1700s, they were around since ancient Chinese times and were introduced to Europe in the 14th Century. The earlier versions of trade cards were hand painted as there were no machines invented that could create them in color and were often gilded to be beautiful objects. They were mainly used for gambling or games of skill and also utilized at mnemonics for memorizing various subjects ranging from geography to cosmology and more.
There were well known designers such as De La Rue, Hunt, Goodall and Reynolds who standardized the look and design of playing cards but a major player in this business was Nintendo. Although their first cards released were hand painted, but due to high demand, the cards were mass produced. It even licensed Disney characters to help boost sales but left the card game business behind when it transitioned into the world of electronic gaming.
Trade cards were offered in retail products and cigarette cards also made their appearance at this time. They acted as the stiffeners of the packs to protect the contents of the cigarette pack. There were two US tobacco companies that were the first to prints ads on the cards and they were Allen and Ginter in 1886 and W.D. & H.O. Wills in 1888.
A few years later lithography was introduced which made it possible to produce a huge variety of cards which ranged from nature to sports and even war – topics that would gain the attention of the men who smoked. By 1990, over 300 types of companies produced thousands of tobacco card sets. Looking at the success of the cigarette cards prompted the production of trade cards. Cigarette cards died a premature death during and after World War 2 and it never really recovered after that.
Baseball cards became hugely popular and were first distributed in 1886 and were first printed by a sporting goods company at the time when baseball was gaining popularity. It was only around the early 20th century that baseball cards were available in candy and tobacco products. This time also saw the production of the most valuable baseball card – the T206 tobacco card featuring Honus Wagner. The T206 set which was distributed by the American Tobacco Company in 1909 is considered to be one of the most popular collectors set of all time. The baseball cards distributed by the Goudey Gum Company in 1933 are considered to be the most affordable yet vintage sets available to this day.