A recent collection of mine, Dr. Daniel and Eleanor Albert collection of cigarette and trade cards, here at the Special Collections Processing Center contained a little over 1,400 cigarette and trade cards. When these six binders were wheeled down to my desk and I saw the sheer number of cards carefully sealed inside their little plastic squares, I grimaced. I had no idea what cigarette cards were; I was born in the 90’s and my childhood consisted of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards – and I’ve never been a smoker – so why would I be interested? Why should anyone be interested? You couldn’t do anything with them (like duel or play a rousing game of Rummy), so who cares? I found out exactly why as soon as I cataloged the very first card.
Cigarette and trade cards are really cool (and totally for non-smokers, too!).
Originally, cigarette cards were simply cardboard stiffeners that cigarette companies would use inside their cartons to help hold their shape. Trade cards were also receipt-like slips at their beginning, only needed to show purchase history. Then, both of these card types evolved into something much bigger: collectible items. Companies would manufacture sets of these little stiff squares and use them for advertising, urging the public to collect the entire set. These sets also had various subjects. Famous characters from literature, cries heard in the streets of London, and optical illusions were among the most popular. Artists could be employed to make a set for a company, using their creativity to produce beautifully drawn scenes with bright colors and quirky characters. These cards became so much more than cardboard inserts.
Cigarette and trade cards are actually highly collected ephemera, widely known and traded around the world in the inner circle of collectors. This collection itself has cards of several different languages, including French, German, and Chinese. These cards reflect each culture in the way they are drawn, the subjects they depict, and the companies that sponsor them. Looking through the some 1,400 cards was incredibly enjoyable and I hadn’t even realized just how many there were until I went to proof my work, I enjoyed them that much. The artwork on some are so beautiful for being printed on little cards, some smaller than a standard index card. Several of these cards definitely put my 90’s game cards to shame (as if they’re winning any awards for art, anyway). I certainly encourage those who did not know about cigarette and trade cards to look a few up, maybe even start a collection of their own, because they’re definitely not just for smokers or people from the late 1800s, and, you know, some of them wouldn’t look bad framed and on a wall…