Collection Spotlight: Trading Cards in the Museum’s Collection
These small cards tell a big story about advertising and business, printing and photography, and the American love of sports.
Collecting trading cards has been a popular hobby since the earliest baseball cards. People often use the term “baseball card” in a general sense; in fact cards exist for almost any sport, including weight lifters, billiards champions, sharpshooters, and swimmers. Non-sports subjects range from actors, astrology, and dogs to flowers, flags, and war. The Hudson River Museum’s trading card collection has examples of all of these, and this case features a rotating selection. These small cards tell a big story about advertising and business, printing and photography, the American love of sports and the rise of women’s sports, and the power and infinite variety of images.
Today, media images are so much a part of our lives that it is hard to overestimate the demand for pictures by nineteenth-century Americans. People wanted to own decorative prints and to see what famous individuals looked like. In the 1870s, innovations in color printing made mass-produced advertising and greeting cards possible. Tobacco companies were looking for ways to promote a new product: machine-rolled cigarettes. In the 1880s, some of these manufacturers began to produce smaller cards to insert in each cigarette package. Soon, tobacco companies fiercely competed to outdo each other in number, variety, and artistic quality of their cards. In 1890, the five largest companies—Duke, Allen & Ginter, Goodwin, Kimball and Kinney—formed the American Tobacco Company and during the next decade bought or eliminated most of the competition. Their monopoly negated the need for consumer incentives like insert cards.
This installation will rotate periodically to share the scope and diversity of the Museum’s trading card collection.
December 18, 2019–March 6, 2020
Around 1909, competition from importers of Turkish tobaccos inspired a new wave of insert cards, as the American Tobacco Company and others vied to capture the market. The formation of the American League in 1901 and the first World Series in 1903 led to increased popularity of baseball and related cards. All types of cards enjoyed a brief heyday, with a decline heralded by the antitrust dissolution of the American Tobacco Company in 1911. The interruption of World War I and the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal”—in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series—foreshadowed a bleak period for baseball cards. Manufacturers had no incentive to associate themselves with a disgraced sport. During the 1920s, baseball fans were won over again, largely due to the dynamic playing style of legendary slugger Babe Ruth. Gum and candy companies dominated the new wave of insert cards, marketed to children as well as adults. During the Great Depression, these new consumers would drive a Golden Age of Baseball Cards.
Opening March 14, 2020
Nineteenth-century tobacco cards rarely featured competitive swimmers, especially compared to baseball players, rowers, boxers, bicyclists, and track and field athletes. Allen & Ginter’s World’s Champions series included two male swimmers, whereas Goodwin & Company’s competing set of champions had none. Much more common at the time were sets of “bathing beauties.” Ocean recreation was all the rage. Seen as a way to promote health, men and women could breathe fresh air, enjoy the sun from under protective parasols, and dip themselves in salt water—sometimes even on the order of their doctors.
Goodwin, William S. Kimball & Company, and Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company all took advantage of this popular pastime. Each maker created a set of insert cards with titillating subject matter to tempt cigarette buyers into completing their set, thereby ensuring brand loyalty. At the time, it was only socially acceptable for men to smoke. In the 1880s, women’s bathing costumes included skirts, voluminous bloomers, and dark stockings, so the more form-fitting, bare-leg outfits worn here reveal that the cards were more likely meant as pin ups rather than depictions of common attire. For women wearing accepted bathing costumes, swimming in an ocean or pool could be dangerous when they were weighed down by the clothing cultural morals demanded.
The first modern summer Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, included swimming races in a nearby bay. By 1910, during an intense period of competition between tobacco companies, swimming cards had gained popularity. In 1912, women were allowed to compete for the first time in a one-hundred-meter freestyle race and a freestyle relay; and the next year, the chewing tobacco company Pan Handle Scrap celebrated women’s accomplishments in Champion Women Swimmers. This series of 100 cards depicted more than twenty swimmers with biographical information or swimming tips printed on the back of the cards. All of the women wear dark knit swimsuits, similar to those worn by men and popularized by Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman (1887–1975). These sleek, one- piece garments permitted faster, safer swimming.
These women were accomplished athletes, yet many of them could only earn a living professionally on the vaudeville circuit doing swimming and diving acts. Odiva, known as the “living mermaid,” even performed with sea lions and held her breath for two minutes while doing acrobatics, or even sewing, at the bottom of a water tank. The risqué subjects popular in the late nineteenth century persisted, such as on these fabric premiums, which added to women’s challenges of being taken seriously. By the 1930s, there were many more trading cards produced by chewing gum than tobacco companies, but sports subjects were still one of the major promotional incentives. In 1933 and 1934, Goudey Gum Company issued Sport Kings Gum, which included insert cards of forty-eight athletes representing eighteen different sports. The three swimmers in the series are the famous competitive swimmers and gold medal Olympians Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, and Helene Madison.