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What is a Cigarette Card?

John Lister
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cigarette card is a small piece of card originally designed to protect cigarettes which were in paper packaging. Manufacturers later came up with the idea of printing promotional messages on the cards. Eventually they produced ranges of designs allowing collectors to try to put together a full set.

The first cigarette card to carry a promotional message was launched by American firm Allen & Ginter in 1886. The idea soon crossed the Atlantic to Great Britain two years later. The idea of collectible sets followed in the 1890s and was popular for most of the following 50 years. The cigarette card became less popular after the Second World War when production was slowed or even banned to save on resources. The few sets produced during both World Wars are now highly valued by collectors.

The hobby of collecting cigarette cards is known as cartophily. The hobby has changed over the years as new card sets are much rarer today than in years past. Instead of buying cigarettes to get new cards, collectors are more likely to hunt down old cards. As these are rarer, collectors will pay high sums, particularly to complete a series.

The most popular reference material for collectors of cigarette cards is Murray's Guide to Cigarette and Other Trade Cards, which lists sets of cards and details such as size, number and value, both for the entire set and individual cards. Some of the more valuable cards are those which contain a mistake and were replaced after release. It’s commonly believed that some manufacturers released the different cards in a set in different quantities so that buyers would keep buying cigarettes to try to get the rarer cards. For this reason some individual cards in a set may be much more expensive among dealers today.

The most well-known cigarette card collector in history was a man named Edward Wharton Tiger. When he died in 1995, he left a collection of more than a million cards to the British museum. This included an extremely rare card featuring baseball player Honus Wagner who forced the producers to withdraw the card from circulation as he was against smoking.

Cigarette cards are collected in the same way as baseball cards, the main difference being that baseball cards are usually either sold separately or with a piece of gum, while cigarette cards were usually available with packs of cigarettes. Other similar promotional techniques in some countries include cards in packets of tea bags, while in Europe, children are more likely to collect stickers.

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John Lister
By John Lister , Former Writer
John Lister, an experienced freelance writer, excels in crafting compelling copy, web content, articles, and more. With a relevant degree, John brings a keen eye for detail, a strong understanding of content strategy, and an ability to adapt to different writing styles and formats to ensure that his work meets the highest standards.

Discussion Comments

By allenJo — On Mar 12, 2012

@everetra - I think promotional pieces from that era qualify as artwork actually. I would love to collect them for their nostalgic value, as they give you a sense of the time and place of that era.

Early promotional messages were far more subtle than today’s advertising approaches in my opinion; they were more transparent and appealed to your core values of industry, honesty and integrity.

At any rate it can be very instructive to peruse through cigarette card albums if you want a historical perspective of the times.

By everetra — On Mar 11, 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how marketers can always find new venues to advertise their stuff. The fact that they advertised in cigarette cards is one such example. It’s a weird place to advertise because the cards are not that visible.

You have to pull them out to look at them and read the marketing message. I wonder what the early advertisements were about, back in the 1800s when this kind of thing was very popular.

I bet they advertised Ivory soap and beer and liquor – perhaps they even advertised cigarettes! In any case I bet selling advertising space was one way that cigarette distributors made it possible to add to their bottom line.

By JimmyT — On Mar 11, 2012
@Emiliski - As far as your question about the Honus Wagner card goes, yes it absolutely is a cigarette card and they were intended to have a dual purpose and not just added in with the usual cigarette card.

This makes this card the most valuable cigarette card in existence as well as most of the cards in the set, many of which one could easily get five hundred dollars for.

I will have to say besides this set of cards, which I believe was produced in 1906, were there other sets produced by cigarette companies before this time and was this simply a trend that had been going on for years prior?

If so it would seem to me like the baseball tobacco cards would have a monopoly on the business as far as the most valuable tobacco cards are concerned.

By jcraig — On Mar 10, 2012

I am a collector and I am curious as to the values of some of the more famous cigarette cards.

I find it surprising that people do collect these types of things, but I guess if they have intricate designs on them or are even baseball cards or part of a series it would make sense.

I am just wondering what some cigarette cards, the baseball card ones excluded, have sold for at auctions and how one would gauge whether or not they have a valuable cigarette card in their possession?

By Izzy78 — On Mar 10, 2012

@Emilski - That is an excellent question that I do not have an answer for. I would think that there may have been a usage of these early on just to add a little bit to their cigarette packaging, but I am unsure if they intended to have a dual use for these baseball cards.

One would think that to save money back then they would just use them as a standard cigarette card that one could keep, considering someone could easily remove the card if they really wanted it and smoke their pack of cigarettes, but I honestly do not know.

I know that by the time the Honus Wagner card set came along the cigarette companies had a motive in what they were doing and that was to include the baseball cards to simply sell more cigarettes, particularly to kids.

I still do not know if these baseball cards were just baseball cards or if they also served as the cigarette cards for the cigarette package.

By Emilski — On Mar 10, 2012

I actually have a question as far as cigarette cards go. I know that back in the early 1900's and even a little before that cigarette companies would package baseball cards in their packaging of the famous players of the day like Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner.

The rarest of these cards is a Honus Wagner card that is rare because he refused to let cigarette companies use him as a way to sell cigarettes to kids, so they stopped making them. This card recently sold for over two million dollars and these types of cigarette cards are very sought after.

My questions is whether or not these baseball cards were in fact originally the cigarette cards for the cigarette boxes or if they were merely an ad on like a stick of bubble gum in a package of baseball cards in the 1950's?

By backdraft — On Mar 09, 2012

I have a collection of all kinds of classic cigarette memorabilia. I have cigarette holders, cigarette packaging including a number of unopened packs, old lighters, cigarette ads and of course, the ubiquitous cigarette cards

The cigarette cards are one of my favorite features because they really reveal something about the mind of the smoker at the time the cards were produced. You have to figure that all ads are targeted at an audience. Whatever was marketed on the cigarette cards was being marketed to the smokers of the day. Well I am a smoker and it's interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

By nextcorrea — On Mar 09, 2012

I have a collection of cigarette cards that I inherited from my grandfather. I love them. There are probably two hundred in his collection and they have been beautifully preserved.

I do not smoke and never have but the cigarette cards provide such a clear and rare look at a bygone era. Seeing all the wacky advertisements they printed up really helps you get a feel for the color of that time and place. I am told that the collection is worth some money but I would never want to sell it.

John Lister

John Lister

Former Writer

John Lister, an experienced freelance writer, excels in crafting compelling copy, web content, articles, and more. With...
Learn more
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