Vintage Food and Cigarette Cards at the Toronto Reference Library
One of the many treasures located in the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre is a collection of vintage food and cigarette cards, ephemeral artifacts from a time when smoking was much more commonplace than it is today (food, on the other hand, is still quite popular). In 1875 an American tobacco company named Allen & Ginter began including cards depicting celebrities, professional athletes, national flags, wild animals and various other popular culture subjects in packs of their cigarettes. In addition to serving as advertising, these cards also enticed customers to buy more of their product in order to complete sets or obtain copies of their favourite cards. They also served a practical purpose by helping to fortify the packaging and protect the cigarettes.
The cards were immediately popular with the public, and not long after other American tobacco companies such as Goodwin & Co. followed suit with their own sets of cards. In 1887, H.D. & H.O. Wills became the first United Kingdom company to include advertising cards with their cigarettes. It wasn’t until 1893, when John Player and Sons produced a set named “Castles and Abbeys,” that their popularity really took off. Soon other British companies were putting out sets featuring cricketers, football teams and players, ships and sailors and various city views. After this, tobacco companies all over the world started to adopt the practice, and eventually food and candy companies began offering sets aimed at children.
The first complete set of baseball cards was put out by Goodwill Tobacco in 1886. In Canada, Imperial Tobacco issued the first set of hockey cards to mark the inaugural NHL season in 1917. Probably the most famous and definitely the most valuable cigarette card is the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, which was issued by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911. Wagner, an All-Star player and eventual Hall of Famer, was a staunch non-smoker and when he found out his likeness was being used to promote cigarettes he refused to allow further production of the card. As a result, only an estimated maximum of 200 cards made it to packs sold to the public. Today, only 57 of the Wagner cards are known to exist and in 2018 one sold for $3.12 million, which broke its own record for the highest price ever paid for a baseball card.
The cards gradually waned in popularity as the novelty wore off. Many companies had stopped printing them by the time of World War 2, and they were discontinued during the war in order to save paper and never fully reintroduced after that, although a few companies did print them here and there throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.