Collecting cigarette cards

00:00 Sun 17th Mar 2002 |

Q. Cut to the chase. Are they worth anything

A. Some cigarette cards are worth fabulous sums, but almost all of these will be rarities published before World War I. For the most part, even whole series in mint condition won't be worth more than a few quid, so don't imagine that cigarette cards will ever make your fortune as an investment.

Q. So, what's the point

A. If you take that attitude, what's the point in collecting anything They're nice things in themselves and are imbued with nostalgia for a bygone era.

Q. When did they first appear

A. Originating in the USA some time in the second half of the 19th century, cigarette cards were launched in Britain as weapons in a trade war that took place around the turn of the 20th century, between American Tobacco and its British subsidiaries, such as Ogdens, and Imperial Tobacco, a conglomerate of 13 companies led by W.D. & H.O. Wills.

Q. And what were the cards for

A. In the 1920s and 1930s, few packets of cigarettes were sold without the inclusion of a picture card with text on the reverse, and the desire to collect complete sets would, the manufacturers hoped, ensure smokers' - or at least their children's' - loyalty to their brands. They even supplied albums to encourage collectors. In short, they were nothing less than a - very successful - marketing gimmick.

Q. What kinds of series were produced

A. The earliest British cards featured stage personalities, and pretty actresses in particular, but there were many subjects, from cars via regiments of the British Empire Forces to flora and fauna. However, the majority of series were about that most glamorous of species, the Hollywood star. Cigarette cards were seen by the studios as a small but potent cog in the Hollywood publicity machine. Most of these film-star cards featured promotional photos or paintings of the stars that had been created by the Hollywood studio system, while others were stills from famous films. The majority carried text that uncritically rehashed the often highly fictionalised biographical material put out by studio publicity departments.

By a happy coincidence of the Golden Age of Hollywood films with the heyday of cigarette cards in the 1930s a new hobby was created for thousands of schoolchildren - and not a few adults. Children scrounged from relatives or from complete strangers emerging from tobacconist's shops, and the cards remained a basic currency in playgrounds well into the 1950s.

The standard dimensions of cards was determined by the size of a packet of ten cigarettes. Miniatures, although they were made, are unusual, and larger cards appeared in packs of 20 or 50. Unusually shaped cards may were made for novelty value, and circular cards to fit in round tobacco tins.

Q. Why did the tobacco companies stop doing them

A. You might think that it was something to do with the demonising of tobacco consumption, but no. If the hobby reached its height in the 1930s, it was pretty much dead by 1950. World War II created paper and tobacco shortages that put an end to the issue of cards, and they weren't revived with any real success after 1945.

Since then cards have been and continue to be used as promotional items with other goods, such as tea - remember those chimps - bubble gum, chocolate, comics and cigars, but these trade cards, as they are known, are rarely of as good quality as cigarette cards and are nothing like as collectable.

Q. Where can you get hold them today

A. Card dealers and auctions are the best place to look for good-quality sets, but you'll have to pay the full market price. Other collectors, whom you can contact through specialist shops or local libraries, may well be prepared to sell or barter cards, while card fairs would also be good hunting grounds. A good bet is always friends and relatives, who may have a tin of cards lying in an attic or broom cupboard with other childhood treasures. Charity or junk shops, flea markets, boot sales and so on may well have job lots of cards for a pound or two.

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By Simon Smith

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