Cigarette picture cards

Originally invented with the idea of protecting the tobacco contained inside, in the course of the previous century, the picture cards once found inside cigarette packets have become much-sought-after collectors’ items and an effective means of advertising.

Giulio C. Cuccolini

During the last decades of the 19th century, tobacco products (snuff/chewing/pipe tobacco, cigars and cigarettes) witnessed a large sales increase. Cigarettes, initially sold loose and by weight, were later placed in flimsy paper packets which damaged the product during handling. In order to avoid this drawback, the idea of introducing a piece of blank cardboard – called a “stiffener” – into each packet to make it rigid was born in the United States. At the beginning of the 1880s, the creative idea of printing an attractive image on the stiffener in order to advertise the product – as was already customary with several other goods like soap, biscuits, chocolate, etc. – was conceived. Later on, sets of appealing picture cards were created as a marketing gimmick in order to stimulate collectors’ passion and encourage people to buy more cigarettes. Since the majority of smokers were men, the subjects depicted on the cards were cars, sports, scenes of war, actresses and beauty queens. Sometimes, albums for the collection of series of cigarette cards were also produced.

IN 1901-02, DUKE'S AMERICAN TOBACCO COMPANY, WHICH HAD A DOMINANT POSITION IN THE US MARKET, ventured out to conquer the British market as well, but was unsuccessful. The cards thus became the weapons of a fiery “tobacco war”.

British tobacco companies reacted to the American attack by putting forth a greater quantity of more elaborate cigarette cards showing music hall artists, cricket players and golfers, political figures, oil paintings by Turner, military uniforms, regiments, events from wars that were under way at the time (e.g., the Boer War 1899-1902), animals.

During the First World War, restrictions on raw materials resulted in a lesser amount of cards, and among the ones being produced were the propaganda sets in support of the war effort.

The period between the First and the Second World War is often called the “golden age” of cigarette cards because their production underwent a substantial increase, which involved also the German market. Even specialized clubs and shops flourished to satisfy the demands of an increasing number of card collectors.

In Great Britain the sets produced (containing from 25 to 50 cards each) dealt with a wide range of topics: film stars and film scenes, uniforms, flags, coat-of-arms, ships, planes, trains, cars, kings and queens, historical figures, famous inventors, sports, first aid, hobbies, scenes from Aesop's fables, Alice in Wonderland, and animal species such as dogs, horses, birds, butterflies, fish, and flowers. Cigarette card albums thus became veritable visual mini-encyclopaedias, very popular, and with an educational value, too.


The traditional cards were replaced by coupons: when a set of coupons had been collected, it could be sent to the cigarette manufacturer in exchange for a set of mint of newly minted picture cards. As the card size was no longer restricted to the size of the packet, larger format pictures soon took over. Since different sets of pictures were in print at the same time, one could choose the set that he or she preferred. Many German sets were black and white or colored photographic images rather than handmade replicas. A series often consisted of several hundred cards, thus amply covering the topic. Sometimes millions of copies of a certain set were printed. German albums were much more elaborate than the English ones: they looked like books with no pictures and the cigarette cards that were glued inside provided the illustrations.

The German sets dealt mainly with patriotic and national issues: uniforms, the army and the navy, songs, German cultural history and film art, the legacy of the past, the Olympic Games (Berlin 1936), etc. The rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 affected the market and resulted in a range of picture card series devoted to political propaganda such as Germany Awakes, Battle for the Third Reich, Men of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, the Wermacht, etc.

After the Second World War, this way of promoting cigarette sales declined and pictures cards production came to an end. Now the old glorious cards have become the object of an expensive collectors’ hobby called “cartophily”. •

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