FROM DISPOSABLE TO COLLECTABLE: The History of Cigarette Cards

A pack of different cigarette cards, all pre-1939 - photo by Dauwalders of Salisbury

Cigarette cards were originally blank card inserts that were used to stiffen soft and flimsy cigarette packets and protect its contents. Stiffeners, as they were called came about in the 1870s. It wasn’t long until someone decided that these stiffeners could serve another purpose: advertisement material. And so, these cards would come with an advertisement for a company, product, or service and would often include printed pictures.

Wills Type Advertisement Cards (Tobacco Packings), Gold Flake Honeydew EX – photo by The Saleroom | Lot 409

Eventually, these cards began to come with pictures of a particular theme, compelling customers to buy more of the product to complete the set of a certain theme. It became a clever way to boost sales and customer loyalty.

In 1878, Edward Bok, having picked up a discarded cigarette card with the picture of an actress, suggested to the printing company that a short biography of the featured actress would make the card even more interesting. This suggested format became a standard that all cigarette cards followed, even to this day.

As cigarette cards gained a fanatical following, more than 300 cigarette manufacturers had to compete with each other, not only to ensure they achieve high product sales but also to gain and establish customer loyalty. Thousands of different sets on different themes were issued to keep people interested. It was not uncommon to see even non-smokers purchasing a pack to complete a set. Children could be seen standing outside stores asking the seemingly kind mister for their “fag card.”

The First World War caused a shortage of materials, leading to the cessation of cigarette card production. They would not return until 1922. Most collectors consider the Golden Age of cigarette cards to be the 1920s to 1930s. Sets released in this period are quite sought after and covered almost everything under the sun.

Ogden’s Photo Album containing approx. 144 Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarette cards – photo by The Saleroom | Lot 648

Towards the end of the 19th century, card sets gained popularity. These sets would consist of 25 to 60 cards, depending on the theme or topic. These cards would contain pictures of famous actresses of the time, well-known places, kings and queens, clowns, and pretty much anything. With the popularity of the sets, it was only natural that storing and displaying them would be a collector’s concern. By the early 1900s, card issuers began to release albums by which customers can store and display their card collection. Ogden’s first issued some hardback albums that allowed one to slip in their cards. Of course, a variety of albums were also made available, and a customer can choose the type of album they would want for their collection.

The habits of collectors also impacted the kind of cards issued. Certain manufacturers, like John Player & Sons, issued cards that have adhesive backs, making them ready to be pasted into one’s album. The release of sticky back cards showed that manufacturers knew the way collectors stored their cards and would look into ways that ensure their cards and products are more desirable than those of their competitors.

Kings And Queens Of England Cigarette Cards Set Of 50 1935 John Player & Sons – photo by Vintage Magazines

When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, countries like Great Britain experienced a shortage of boards and paper. The crisis meant that issuing millions of collectible cigarette cards became untenable and production ceased. Cigarette cards were no longer issued even after the war ended, yet manufacturers of other products such as tea, chocolate, and bubble gum issued their own cards following the format of cigarette cards. To this day, collectable cards are issued by a variety of commercial companies, including sports product manufacturers, and games and toys publishers. Cigarette cards may have been what lit the spark in terms of card collecting enthusiasm.

Cigarette Cards: A Convenient Source of Information

Literacy rates weren’t high at that time, and very few people were able to afford an education or even books. The printed cards with information about their featured subject became a means for the masses to learn about things. It was also a way for them to see places they would never be able to visit and discover things that they otherwise wouldn’t have known. Aside from the wonderful pictures, the information the cards provided contributed to their popularity.

Tobacco cards, cigarette cards Air Raid Precautions, 1938 – photo by Ephemera & Paper Collectibles

W.D. & H.O. Wills was the first cigarette manufacturer in Britain to issue cigarette cards, primarily for advertising purposes. It was in 1895 that they issued their first series Ships & Soldiers. In 1897, they released their Kings & Queens set. People who collected cards in the Kings & Queens set got to learn about each featured monarch through the short information printed at the back. It was one of the first few sets issued with brief details about their featured subject. Other manufacturers, like Ogden’s and John Player & Sons also released card sets that followed the same format.

Cigarette card themes also served as a reflection of the concerns and sentiments of the time. There was a set titled Air Raid Precautions that was issued before the Second World War. Certain sets, like those featuring military aircraft or weaponry, were banned by governments probably to prevent the enemy from gaining information on such things.

Below are some popular themes and topics featured in cigarette cards.


A set of 50 Cope Bros ‘British Warriors (black printing)’ cigarette cards, circa 1912 – photo by Toovey’s | Lot 3121

These are cards that deal with military themes and consists of several sets under certain topics. Certain sets feature uniforms, famous military personnel, badges, crests, naval ships, weaponry, regiments, etc. These include American Civil War Generals by W. Duke & Sons (1889), Military Army Badges by Gallaher (1939), Territorial Regiments Uniforms and Flags by Taddy & Co. (1908), British Warriors by Copes (1912), Military Uniforms also issued by Copes (1898), and the naval series Battleships and Crests by Hills (1901).

Sports and T-sets

There were of course cards devoted to a variety of sports. Popular among collectors were cricket, football, tennis, and horse racing. These cards may feature a popular player or players of a particular team. In the case of horse racing, cards may feature popular horses, their jockeys, or even racing horse breeds. Cricketers Series by Pattreiouex (1928), featuring leading Australian players of the time such as W.A. Oldfield, as well as Herbert Sutcliffe (Yorkshire) and Lancaster players. The Cricketers Series consists of 75 cards. Other examples under this theme include the 1900s Football Club, a 60-card set featuring the captains of different football clubs, which was issued by Cohen Weenan (1908). There is also the Famous Jockeys by Taddy & Co. (1910) and the Famous Running Horses by Kinney (1889). And of course, there were the baseball cards from Allen & Ginter and Old Judge.

1909-1911 T206 One-Half Set (262/524) with 8 HOFers – photo by BST Auctions | Lot 102

The T-sets are among the most popular cigarette cards. There are only five T-sets issued. Among these were Mecca Cigarette’s T201’s, T202’s that were packaged with Hassan cigarettes (these had multi-player cards), Ramly and T.T.T. T204’s, the gold bordered T205’s, and the famous T206. T206 cards featured 389 Major League players and 126 Minor League players, creating a set with a total of 525 cards. These were issued around 1909 to 1911 by 16 different manufacturers. These white border cards are highly sought after even to this day.


Sets under this theme feature motor cars, bombers, monoplanes, and other modes of transportation. The 1930s was not only the Golden Age of cigarette cards but of the British motor industry as well. It was only natural that there is the Motor Cars set, issued by Gallaher in 1934. BAT’s Military Aircraft issued in 1926 features the development of military aviation around the world. In 1936, Carreras released the Famous Airmen and Airwomen 50-card set, featuring the flight pioneers like Amelia Earhart and Lois Bleriot.

Miscellaneous Popular Sets

Cigarette cards Gallaher 1935 Signed Portraits of Famous Stars, complete set – photo by eBay | Michael Brown

These are sets that have a popular following even though their theme may seem a bit ordinary. Examples include the Signed Portraits of Famous Stars. It’s a 48-card set issued in 1935 by Gallaher. Among the 1930s stars featured in this set include Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Other examples are Taddy & Co.’s Royalty Series and Thames Series both issued in 1903, LEA’s Flowers to Grow (1913), and Cohen Weenan’s Star Artists (1907) featuring famous stars of the British Music Hall Era.

Victoria Cross

These are sets that feature recipients of the Victoria Cross – an award given for outstanding acts of bravery. There’s Taddy & Co.’s VC Heroes, which consists of four sets (Battle Scenes set and three sets of Boer War heroes) issued from 1901 to 1902. There is also the VC Heroes (Great War) series which consists of six sets, the first four issued in 1915 while the last two in 1916. Each set consists of 25 cards, featuring Victoria Cross recipients.

Cigarette Cards: Little Nuggets from the Past

To this day, cartophiles continue to seek out and collect cigarette cards. Cigarette cards can be found in cartophile clubs, purchased from stores that sell originals and reproductions, or from auction houses. Like with other collectables, a set’s (or a card’s) age, subject, and condition determine their value. Earlier cigarette cards would, of course, fetch a high price, as limited edition sets or cards that feature a rare subject or famous personality (like the Hognus Wagner card from the T206 set). More mundane topics are usually cheaper as well as reproductions. Online stores like CigaretteCard sells reproductions which range from around £6 to around £10 depending of course on the series. Individual cards could start at $15 on sites like eBay, while sets may be around $130 (starting bid) depending on the rarity of the individual card and set.

No matter the reason one has for indulging in cartophily, it cannot be denied that cigarette cards not only served as a hobby. The information printed on them helped people to see places they would never see, learn things they wouldn’t have known, and reflected the sentiments of the people of their era. Collecting them gives us a glimpse of the culture, way of life and interests of the people in the past.