Collection Spotlight: Trading Cards in the Museum’s Collection

December 18, 2019–October 24, 2021

The Hudson River Museum’s trading card collection tells the story of 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.

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 weightlifting, billiards, sharpshooting, and swimming. Non-sports subjects range from actors, astrology, and dogs to flowers, flags, and war.

Today, media images are so much a part of our lives that it is easy to underestimate the demand for pictures by nineteenth-century Americans, who wanted to own decorative prints and 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 machine-rolled cigarettes, a new product, and 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 their competition. Eventually, their monopoly negated the need for consumer incentives like insert cards.

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Baseball Cards
December 18, 2019–March 6, 2020

The formation of the American League in 1901, as well as the first World Series in 1903, led to increased popularity of baseball and related cards. 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. 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.

Swimming Cards
July 31–October 24, 2021

Nineteenth-century tobacco cards rarely featured competitive swimmers. Instead, sets of “bathing beauties” were much more common. However, in 1896, the first modern summer Olympics, which was held in Athens, included swimming races, and by 1910, during an intense period of competition between tobacco companies, the popularity of swimming cards rose. In 1912, women were allowed to compete for the first time in a one-hundred-meter freestyle race and a freestyle relay. The next year, chewing tobacco company Pan Handle Scrap celebrated women’s accomplishments with Champion Women Swimmers. This series of 100 cards depicted more than twenty swimmers with biographical information or swimming tips printed on the backs. 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, among them the famous competitive swimmers and gold medal Olympians Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, and Helene Madison.

Tim Jordan, Giants, and Buck Herzog, ca.1911. Chromolithograph with hand-coloring. Turkey Red Premium, No. 45. Gift of Henry S. Hacker, 1998 (