Illustrated cards were popular in the 1900s

Cigarette cards were the forerunners of today’s trading cards, be they Pokémon or sports cards. Cigarette cards first emerged in America in 1875, after packet ‘stiffeners’ were recognised by tobacco companies for their marketing potential. Limited illustrated series were issued to reward customers and encourage collecting. Cards were organised in sets of 25 to 50, featuring a common topic. The earliest cards were issued by the US-based tobacco company Allen and Ginter, depicting actresses and baseball players.

Other American and English tobacco companies followed suit. WD and HO Wills was the first British cigarette manufacturer to include cards in 1888, originally for advertising. In 1895 their first general interest set ‘Ships and Soldiers,’ was issued. Other sets include those from John Player and Sons and Ogden’s Cigarettes from around 1900, featuring weapons, transport, racehorses and sportsmen.

Australians also began collecting in the late 19th century, as English and American firms shipped their tobacco products here. Some sets were tailored towards Australian subjects: the American Tobacco Company featured a 1901 ‘Australian Parliament’ issue. By far the most active issuer to the Australian market was the British company Wills, whose 1901 ‘Cricketers’ Australian series continued into the mid-1930s.

The National Cigarette Company of Australia was the first local manufacturer to issue cards, featuring the touring ‘English Cricket Team 1897 to 1898’. The sets produced by Melbourne firm Sniders and Abrahams between 1904 and 1919 are considered the finest of Australian card issues by collectors. They issued 33 series, on themes including sport and actresses.

By the early 1900s, thousands of sets were issued by more than 300 cigarette companies. Children pestered their parents to buy a particular brand to complete a set they were collecting. It was a common sight to see them waiting outside the tobacconist’s asking: “Can I have your cig card, mister?”

The popularity of these beautiful, colour cards came when books were expensive, especially during the Depression era. Artists and writers produced the cards, which were miniature works of art that also served as encyclopedias for children.

Between 1917 and 1922, production of cards ceased due to a materials shortage caused by World War I. During the 1920s and 1930s, millions of cigarette cards were produced.

The last series of cards issued by an Australian firm was Dudgeon and Arnell’s ‘1934 Australian Cricket Team’. Paper restrictions during World War II and the high cost of raw materials led to the cards’ decline.

Stanton Library has a large card collection from the 1920s and 1930s, ranging from natural history and sport to transport. These cards are historian research resources. The library’s collection includes cards by John Player and Sons, along with early 20th century grocery company cards by Typhoo Tea, J Lyons and Kellogg’s.

Historical Services, North Sydney Council