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.