Trading Cards

I was recently reminded of the existence of trading cards, which of course calls to mind the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy asks whether Beethoven ever had his picture on a bubble gum card. This prompted me to look into the history of trading cards a little (i.e. on Wikipedia).

Trading cards as we know them today seem to have begun with cigarette manufacturers including trade cards in the packages of cigarettes. Trade cards were the business counterpart to calling cards—things you would give someone with your name and some information about you, including how to contact you, which you might leave if you called on someone and they weren’t home, or else as a means of introduction. Tradesmen would have cards for themselves in their professional capacity, and these might include instructions on how to find them (in the days before standardized addressing schemes). Businesses would also have similar cards for similar reasons, and cigarette companies started including theirs in the packages of cigarettes both to help protect the cigarettes (by stiffening the package) and also to help advertise their brand.

In 1875, the American tobacco company Allen & Ginter began to print pictures of more interesting things on the cards. According to Wikipedia these pictures were of, “actresses, baseball players, Native American chiefs, boxers, national flags, or wild animals.” In the UK, John Player & Sons introduced a series of cigarette cards called, “Castles and Abbeys.” People began to collect these cards and trade them to build up their collections, and the phenomenon quickly spread, with candy makers taking it up before long.

At approximately the same time, baseball cards were getting printed as trade cards. In the late 1800s baseball teams and players were posing for photographs, and these became available to things like sporting goods stores who used them as trade cards (interesting picture on one side, information about the store on the other). It would not be too long before these sorts of trade cards began to be included in cigarette packs and confectionery, and have information about the player rather than about a business on the obverse side.

If we distinguish trading cards from the broader set of collectible cards by whether or not there’s anything one can do with the cards such as play a game that the cards were designed for—the latter category including standard playing cards with 52 cards in 4 suits, Pokémon, Magic the Gathering, etc—trading cards had mostly disappeared from popular consciousness by the time I was a kid in the 1980s. I remember a brief fad for Garbage Pail Kids, but they were a joke and lasted about as long as one would expect a joke to last. (I don’t know if anyone collected them for even two years.)

I had a very minor baseball card collection, for about a year, almost entirely because I’d heard about how much money old baseball cards were worth and figured I might as well try in case they’d be worth anything in thirty years. That’s not much of a reason to pay money for things and then store them, though, which is why I quickly gave it up. I had never heard of anyone else collecting baseball cards even for that reason, and certainly not with any interest in the things for themselves.

Thinking about this made me wonder why anyone ever collected trading cards. The best that I can come up with is that it mostly makes sense as a pre-television and pre-color-magazine phenomenon.

Magazines began being printed in color in the late 1930s, so I expect that they were (approximately) all printed in color by the late 1940s. This would provide a common source of pictures that people could cut out and look at any time they wanted. Television only turned to color in the 1960s, but even black-and-white television provided many opportunities to see celebrities and sports stars for free. Prior to these things, though, how would a kid know what his favorite baseball players looked like? There were pictures in newspapers, of course, but that was a bit more haphazard and only turned to color in the late 1970s and I’m not sure when the quality of the photographs actually became decent.

To put it very simply, in the era when color photographs were not common, it makes sense that color photographs printed on cards might have been valuable. I don’t mean in the monetary sense that rare cards from people’s youths eventually were bought for large amounts of money, but rather in the simpler sense that people would actually want the things and spend some effort to collect them or trade them.

Of course, like most things that built up cultural inertia they would have continued to be made and collected for a while after they really made sense. If I’m right that trading cards stopped making sense in the late 1940s, then it seems possible that people might still be collecting them (in earnest) and talking about them into the 1960s, for Lucy to ask, in 1965, how can you say that someone is great who’s never had his picture on a bubblegum card?

Of course, this question of Lucy’s was written by adults, and moreover written as a joke. If it was an instance of adults thinking that kids still did what they themselves did when they were kids—it would not have been the first.

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