Past Times

Past Times: Kids collected cigarette trading cards in late 1800s

Actors and actresses of the day were a popular subject for cigarette cards.
Actors and actresses of the day were a popular subject for cigarette cards. DUKE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

The collecting of trading cards goes back much further than Pokemon or even baseball cards. In 1949 writer Earl Dean explained the history of cigarette cards back to the 1880s.

It wouldn’t do much good to ask the average boy or girl of today about cigarette cards. Few, if any, ever heard of them, much less collected them. Many a man just over forty, however, well remembers when the cards were extremely popular and much sought after.

Tobacco companies first started distributing them in the 1880’s to spur cigarette sales. Cigarettes then were packed in small pasteboard boxes which opened and closed much like safety match boxes. The cigarette cards, slightly smaller, were slipped in between the box and its cover.

W. Duke & Sons Tobacco Company of Durham and Allen & Ginter, a tobacco company established in Richmond, Va., in 1869, were perhaps the nation’s most prolific producer of cigarette cards. Washington Duke and his sons were manufacturing tobacco here long before they started to make cigarettes. Their Durham factory first made cigarettes in 1882, nearly seven and a half million of them. Five years later they were producing over 466 million a year, nearly double that of any other tobacco company in the United States at that time. Their brands were “Dukes,” “Cameos,” “Turkish Cross Cuts” and “Preferred Stock.”

Into each and every pack of these went a tiny card on which appeared a picture of the leading actor or actress of the day, coins of all nations, fancy dress ball costumes, flags of all nations or a 20-page “Horatio Alger” booklet telling of poor boys who became rich and famous.

Allen & Ginter, not to be outdone featured birds, game cocks, prize chickens, wild animals, racing jockeys, U. S. government buildings, parasol drills, bloomer girls, pirates of the Spanish Main, naval vessels at sea and prize fighters clad in close-fitting “longies” in pugilistic poses.

Two of the best-known sets of cigarette cards were the American Indian series, one of which was included in every package of Hassan cigarettes sold, and the Lighthouse series, a set of 50 pictures of light houses along the Atlantic coast all the way from Barnegat Bay to Key West. A brief description of the subject, a card number and the total number in the set were printed on the reverse side. The picture side, of course, carried the name of the cigarette company in bold type.

Between 1912 and 1915 the big tobacco companies entered a phase of keen competition for cigarette smokers and apparently tried to see who could put bigger and better premiums in cigarette boxes. Allen & Ginger, producer of “Virginia Brights,” “Opera Puffs,” “Dixie Dainties,” and “Pets;” and the Lorillard Company, makers of “Mechanic’s Delight,” “Tiger Cuts” and “Five Cent Antes” all contributed to the flood that was to spell the doom of cigarette cards. Many of the most gaudy cigarette pictures of this period were printed in bright colors, on small pieces of silk, satin and flannel. Many a little girl around 1913 had her collection of miniature Persian rugs complete with silk fringe, while the little boys hoarded flags of all nations and had butterfly collections. Some tobacco companies even inserted coupons exchangeable for large and expensive gift premiums.

The cigarette card craze finally came to an end when some society for the suppression of such things succeeded in getting a law through Congress forbidding placing gifts of any kind in packages of cigarettes possibly on the grounds that they started too many little boys to smoking the “filthy weed.” From all evidence, the big tobacco companies didn’t object any too strenuously as by then the practice had become such a costly one to the companies they were glad to see it abolished. The N&O Jan. 16, 1949

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