Ogden Optical Illusion Cards, early 1930s
The practice of saving cigarette cards — a sub-genre of collecting known as cartophily
— formally lies somewhere on the spectrum between postage stamps and posters. (If they resemble the former in their diminutive size, they aspire to the latter in their sheer ambition and scope.) Featuring subjects as diverse as racehorses, hieroglyphs, footballers
, aircrafts, optical illusions
, heraldic symbols, squirrels, pistols, maps and the monarchy, these miniature cards were initially placed in cigarette packages as stiffeners. A history of their popularity and publication can be loosely said to parallel the rise and fall of the tobacco industry as a whole.
Cigarette cards appeal, like many things, because they participate in a larger gestalt: are we compelled by some kind of material challenge? ("Collect 'em all
!") Are we drawn to their essential incompleteness, mirroring on some gut level our own incompleteness? Is it optical, formal, emotional — this mesmerizing lure? In this, the first in a series of essays on its baffling appeal, let's ask the basic question:
What is it about the series that fascinates us so?Ogden "Footballers" Cards, early 1900s
Cigarette cards, as a series, can be traced back to the 1880s — coincidentally, about the time Eadweard Muybridge
was conducting experiments on the very subject of the relationship
between static and kinetic images. (Muybridge will be considered in a
subsequent post, as will Andy Warhol
, Chuck Close, handwriting primers, baroque ornament, political campaign buttons, Mallomars, and more.)
Today, it's easy to relegate cigarette cards to a kind of been-there-done-that paper trail — old, dead, dinosaurs of a dessicated era. But a closer look
reveals something decidedly more unusual: spanning nearly a century of political propaganda, social history, information design, and the cult of sports worship, the history of cigarette cards offers a fascinating glimpse into the public preoccupations of an earlier age. Ogden Swimming Instruction Cards, 1930s
Cards were designed in both portrait and landscape formats, and crafted in considerable quantity so as to be able to offer detailed instruction. (Hard to imagine someone referring to a cigarette card when evaluating their double-arm back stroke, but then again, you never know.) Cards highlighting the dos and dont's of, say, bandage wrapping gained some traction during the First World War, when this sort of tutelage might have come in handy. Along the way, there were tarot cards and magic tricks, pin-up girls and celebrity portraits, fish and fowl and oddly, some astonishing bits of technological arcana — detailed illustrations of circuit breakers, induction motors, furnace hoists, and more.
Meanwhile, sports-related cards endured, like these: straddling the line between simple diagram and repeat pattern. Ogden Swimming Instruction Cards, 1930s
To view the cards as a series, like those shown here, is to gain a crude
approximation of a kind of dynamic movement: think of it as a really
primitive motion graphic which, in a sense, it was. Ogden Swimming Instruction Cards, 1930s
If the relationship — and the tension — between what is variable and what is constant can be said to underscore the designer's essential relationship to his or her work, then our relationship to the "series" deserves some real scrutiny. As a genre, cigarette cards — a long-overlooked yet highly engaging pictorial remnant of material culture — embraced sameness and difference with unusual variety, imagination and skill. Mostly unified by their one-to-two format, they nevertheless revealed countless variation in topic and scope, style and personality, seriousness of purpose and goofball whimsy. If the ardent collector defines the amalgamation of disparate items by retaining a fundamental organizing principle, then what is it, exactly, that guides the maker? And enthralls the viewer?
Hardly something to be answered in a single post. Ergo: a series.Will's Animal Puzzle Cards, early 1920s