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Front cover of Collecting Cigarette & Trade Cards by Gordon Howsden
Collecting Cigarette & Trade Cards, Gordon Howsden (New Cavendish Books, 1995)

Cigarette-cards remind me of roses. Roses can flourish on dung and decay. Cigarette-cards flourished on death and dirt. Their association with smoking gives them a deadly edge that, like the thorniness of roses, makes them seem more interesting and powerful. This book also covers cards that came with tea or chocolate, but they don’t have the glamour of cigarette-cards. Nor do stamps, partly because stamps aren’t associated with a dangerous habit and partly because stamps are smaller. Stamps look at the world through a peep-hole; cards look at the world through a small window. Some of the cards here aren’t devoted to individual footballers but to entire teams, like those in the “Association Cup Winners” series of 1930: “Tottenham Hotspur 1921” and “Newcastle United 1924”, for example. Headshots and names are all included and there will be extra information on the back of each card. Another card, from Ogden’s “Champions of 1936”, is something a stamp couldn’t be: a full-length study of the golfer A.H. Padgham as he completes a drive against a backdrop of grass and sky. You can see the small details of his clothes, shoes and hair and easily identify the club he’s using.

Well, you might be able to identify the club easily, but I can’t. Is it a niblick or a mashie or something else? I’ve no idea, but it would have had one of the old evocative names, as used by P.G. Wodehouse in his golfing stories from the same era. Names like Ogden and Padgham are evocative too: cigarette-cards can open a window on vanished worlds, like the long-lost England before the war. All the faces looking out from the “Association Cup Winners” series are white, because the cards come from pre-enrichment days and London, the home of the national football stadium, wasn’t then vibrant with stabbings, shootings and gang-rape.

Which isn’t to say the cards are xenophobic or insular: Wills’ “Soldiers of the World” from 1895 is an attractive series showing not just Norwegian and Roumanian soldiers, but Japanese and Moroccan ones too. Yes, the book is written for British collectors and concentrates on British cards, but it also looks at cards produced overseas, including the Americas, Australasia, South Africa and Europe. And “Middle East and Asia”: it reproduces an interesting series of “Siamese Horoscopes” of c. 1916, which features Hindu-esque deities riding on leopards, goats and buffaloes and labelled in the odd but attractive Thai/Siamese script.

On the previous page, there’s a series devoted to whaling, with harpoons and butchery tools; on the following page, there’s a series devoted to “Wonders of the World”, including Venice, St Peter’s, and the Colossi of Memnon at Luxor in Egypt. Almost every conceivable topic must have appeared on cigarette-cards at some time somewhere in the world, so long as it was interesting to one or another group of men and boys.

And you can’t exclude something interesting to most men and boys, because many of the cards must have been near-pornographic in their day, like “Fancy Bathers” of c. 1889, “Beauties – Water Girls” of c. 1903, and “Sporting Girls” of c. 1910. The series are excuses to show nubile young women with bare arms and legs and even a hint of cleavage. I suppose you could call them fume-born Aphrodites. Sex has been selling for a long time, and so has celebrity in its many forms. There are cards devoted to stars of stage and screen, stars of sports and speedway, and literal stars, like the one condensing from a spinning cloud of gas in the “Romance of the Heavens” series of 1928.

Everything stamps can cover, cigarette-cards covered too, but in more detail. Stamps have featured famous mountains and so did cards. But cards went further: one card here features a Japanese stamp featuring Mt Fuji (ch. 9, “Thematic Collecting”, pg. 129). It’s in the Duke “Postage Stamps” series of 1889 and the stamp is actually real. Each card in the series has a picture “in superb colour”, usually “relating to the mail”, and a space for a real franked stamp to be attached. So you could collect stamps by collecting cards. But the series goes even further in its post-weird/weird-post meta-textuality: one of the scenes is of a group of boys comparing cigarette-cards and asking “Got any Duke’s Stamp Cards?”

Siamese deities and proto-stars seem almost mundane after that, but mundanity can become the focus of collecting. What’s more mundane than a mistake? But because manufacturers try to eliminate mistakes, they can acquire rarity or novelty value. I already knew that applied to stamps, where small misprints can add great value, and I learnt here that it applies to cigarette-cards too. With more room for detail, the artists working on cards also had more room for interesting errors:

Possibly the most famous error concerns card no. 43 in the Player’s series of DANDIES. This depicted Benjamin Disraeli in 1826, standing in front of Westminster Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben behind him. Unfortunately, the artist had overlooked the fact that Big Ben had not been built at that date so a second printing was made with the clock tower erased. This, however, left a smudge in the background and eventually the card had to be completely redrawn. (ch. 10, “Novelties and Related Ephemera”, pg. 139)

Big Ben seems such an essential part of London that it’s easy to forget it hasn’t been there very long. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s anachronistic “as constant as the northern star”. He puts the phrase into the mouth of someone in Roman times, when the northern star, Polaris, wasn’t at the pole, because it isn’t constant. You can find both Shakespeare and his characters on cards in this book and no doubt Polaris appears on one or more cards somewhere else. The card might note its wandering nature too, because cards didn’t differ from stamps just by having more detail on the front. They had room for short texts on the back, like this one from “Fishes of the World” of 1903:

THESE PICTURES

OF

FISHES OF THE WORLD

Streaked-Gurnard

(Trigla lineata.)

About forty species of “Gurnard” are known from tropical and temperate seas. The three finger-like appendages under the pectoral fins, are used by the fish for walking on the bottom, as well as for organs of touch. Its fins are beautifully ornamented, especially the long pectorals, which, when the fish is floating on the water, are spread out like wings. The grunting noise made by the Gurnard when taken out of the water, is caused by the escape of gas from the air-bladder. Length 12 to 14 inches.

ARE ISSUED BY JOHN PLAYER & SONS

BRANCH OF THE IMPERIAL

TOBACCO CO. (OF GREAT BRITAIN

AND IRELAND), LIMITED.

(ch. 4, “The ITC [Imperial Tobacco Company] Giants”, pg. 50)

That’s natural history, but cigarette-cards didn’t just draw on or depict real history, they became part of it. The Carreras company named its Black Cat cigarettes after a cat “apparently famous for making his home in the Carreras shop window in the 1880s” (pg. 77). But the packets didn’t offer cards until 1916:

The first card series to appear was the dramatic and controversial RAEMAEKERS WAR CARTOONS. This long series of cards can be collected with either Black Cat or Carreras Cigarettes printed on the front. These vitriolic sketches on the barbarity of the enemy so infuriated the Germans that they put a price on the Belgian artist’s head. (ch. 6, “The Independents”, pg. 77)

Carreras went on to produce less controversial “Figures of Fiction” and “Highwaymen” series, but they were issued in shorter runs and are probably cheaper to collect. The “War Cartoons” series is labelled “J, set of 140”, which meant, when the book was published in 1995, it cost “£100 to £150” to acquire the full set. Prices will have increased since then and I wonder what the record price for a cigarette-card is now. Back then, the record was held by “the ‘Honus Wagner’ baseball card, being one of a set of 524 issued by the American Tobacco Company in the USA between 1909 and 1911” (“Introduction”, pg. 9). The player is said to have objected to being featured, so the card was withdrawn. Although there are rarer cards, “in 1991” a Wagner card “sold at auction for $451,000”. On this side of the Atlantic, the most sought-after cards are in the “Clowns and Circus Artistes” series, which was issued by James Taddy & Co. in 1920. Or rather, wasn’t issued: proofs of the series had been printed when the company suddenly closed down on the point of principle involving a strike (ch. 6, pg. 90).

A card from this series, which isn’t Taddy’s most attractive or best-printed, is labelled “K, per card”, which means each card was selling for “more than £150” in 1995. So were they worth forging back then? Have they become so since? This book is an interesting and detailed introduction to collecting cigarette-cards, but there must be much more to tell. I’d like to know about the psychology of cigarette-card collecting, for example, though I already know, without being told, that it must be overwhelmingly male. But how does card-collecting differ, psychologically speaking, from the overwhelmingly male hobby of stamp-collecting? I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap, but what snobberies and rivalries are there? Do people start with stamps and then move onto cigarette-cards? Are card-collectors more extrovert, less obsessive? Does the association with tobacco make it a more macho hobby?

You can ask related questions about all forms of collecting, but cigarette-cards aren’t functional like stamps or tram-tickets, and aren’t complete in themselves, like watches or walking-sticks. They were a gift with another item and they referred to the wider world. But, like stamps, they didn’t start as art. Stamps were originally utilitarian and not very decorative. They began to use proper images of the world later, from butterflies to moon-landings. Cigarette-cards began even less promisingly:

The companies that first put brand names on their cigarettes originally sold them loose or in flimsy paper packets. To stop the cigarettes from getting crushed a small piece of blank card was inserted in the packet and before long someone had the idea to use the card to advertise the company’s products. This card was known as a stiffener and is still so referred to by the tobacco industry even today. (ch. 1, “Tobacco and the Cigarette Card”, pg. 15)

But “Who issued the first picture card will never be known for sure.” It was an ephemeral item and nobody could have guessed the riches of illustration and education that would come later. You can glimpse a few of those riches here: roses, ostriches, chess champions, sun-dials, sea-planes, fudge wheels, clan tartans, Palissy vases, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Turkish sabre-hilts, Tom Brown, palmistry, optical illusions, herons, Gulliver’s Travels, shrubby magnolias, running forehand drives, Glamis Castle, Eastern Proverbs (“Look the other way when a girl in the tea-house smiles”), the Victoria Cross, preparation of geranium cuttings, Harold Lloyd, pumas, Alice in Wonderland, and “Il Tabacco di Virginia” on an Italian series of 1909.

“Il Tabacco” is where it all began: without tobacco, no cigarette-cards, with all their fascination and beauty. And much less lung-cancer too, with all its foulness and horror. But, as I said, that association with tobacco adds extra interest to cigarette-cards. I’m not going to begin collecting them, but I’m glad to have seen so many and learnt more about their history here, from Carreras’ black window-cat to Taddy’s point of principle.

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