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.
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.
This installation will rotate periodically to share the scope and diversity of the Museum’s trading card collection.