began in the mid-19th century as premiums, enclosed in product packaging. Initially they were used to stiffen the package of cigarettes and prevent them from being damaged. They were usually issued as a numbered series in runs of twenty-five, fifty, or larger: and to be collected, spurring subsequent purchases of the same brand. Typically, these small cards featured illustrations on one side with related information and advertising text on the other.
The height of cigarette-card popularity started in the early 20th century, when tobacco companies around the world issued sets in an encyclopedic range of subjects: obscure military figures, royalty, insects, cowboys, exercise, first-aid, medicine, technology, trains, sports and film stars are just a few of the many topics covered.
Looking at them today, far removed from their original context, they take on an almost dadaist/surrealist feeling. A rabbit being held by it's ears with a caption that reads "Common fallacies, 23," a hyper close-up of an X-ray machine or a hand holding a watch are like Man Ray and Duchamp's readymades
. They become mysterious and at times, unsettling when viewed as a singular work. Many of my favorites are the Players and Wills series from England during the '30s and '40s. Exquisite little drawings of boys exercising or shoes or the solar system, each rendered and colored in such a simple, pure manner.
Many of these images are from the extraordinary holding of the New York Public Library
, which includes more than 125,000 individual cards. However, the largest cigarette-card collection is that of Edward Wharton-Tigar
. His collection, at the British Museum
, comprised of over one million cigarette and other trade cards, it is one of the largest collections the Museum has ever acquired.
While most cards were produced by conventional offset or other economical commercial printing processes, there are a few series which were issued as original gelatin silver photographs or printed on silk or linen fabric; others were created as puzzles or paper toy cut-outs.
They almost make cigarettes look good.