Tuesday, 5 June 2012

It's on the Cards.

                Victor Hugo’s romantic drama Hernani debuted in Paris on February 25th 1830, and initiated a fashion for all things Spanish in France. The Spanish Dons grew the rare and valuable tobacco plants from the New World on their estates, and took great pride in offering their guests gifts made from the rolled leaves of the plants, saying, ”Es de mi cigarral” – ‘It is from my garden’. The diminutive form of ‘little garden’ – ‘cigarro’ - was itself diminished to ‘cigar’, and diminished further by the French to ‘cigarette’. 

The fashion for cigarettes spread first into France, and later, due to the Crimean War, (when soldiers from other nations came into contact with each other), across the rest of Europe. British officers and soldiers brought the habit of taking their tobacco in short paper tubes back from the war with them, and by the 1850s could buy manufactured cigarettes. The early paper packets they were sold in were unsatisfactory; the cigarettes dried out quickly and the tobacco shook out of the paper tubes. Foil inserts went some way to preventing this, and the addition of cardboard ‘stiffeners’ gave the packets an improved sturdiness. 

In the 1880s, some American manufacturers started to print advertisements on the stiffeners, and with the aim of causing their customers to retain these advertisements, more attractive forms evolved. The practice spread to the UK, and in 1895 W D & H O Will’s issued the first complete set of cards “Ships and Soldiers”. Other sets, by other firms, followed, and the cigarette card became collectable. Will’s 1897 set “Kings and Queens” was the first set to have a printed description of the subject on the reverse side. During the early 1900s, hundreds of sets were issued by over 300 companies, on a startling array of subjects – from Cricketers to Clowns, Railway Architecture to Old Sundials. 

Front of card

Reverse of the same card

This is my oldest individual card – from Player’s British Empire series of 1904.  

Cigarette companies also began to sell albums, in which the sets of cards could be kept, while the collecting of sets encouraged brand loyalty. 

Front of an album

Inside the album, showing how the cards are mounted.

This set is W D & H O Will’s English Period Costumes from 1929. 

Small boys would scrounge cards from customers as they came out of tobacconists’ shops, and swap them to make up full sets, creating a childhood currency of their own. Wartime restrictions on materials ceased production in 1917, but cards started to be issued again by 1922, and the ‘Golden Age’ of the cigarette card began. 

Here are both sets (of 25 cards each) of W D & H O Will’s Cinema Stars (1923). 

The sets from this era, especially those from Will’s and Player’s, were magnificent miniature encyclopaedias, providing informative illustrated guides to all manner of subjects in just 50 small cards. 

This is the 1923 set of Gardening Hints by W D & H O Will’s. 

Corporal Hitler’s Unpleasantness stopped production again in the 1940s, and the high costs of post-war production prevented the widespread resurgence of cards, although trade cards – in tea, cereal 0r chewing gum packets, for instance - became popular. 

The sheer volume of cards that were issued means that full sets from the 1930s and 40s can still be bought for a few pounds, although rarer sets (and individual cards) can cost hundreds or thousands of pounds – the world record is over one and a half million pounds for a single baseball card. 

The Do You Know? set from 1924, by W D & H O Will’s.

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