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Collecting Ephemera – Past & Present

Nineteenth-century paperboard trade cards and their 20th-century trading cards counterparts have long been used as a popular way for companies to advertise their brand and sell products. They are fun to look
at, read, and collect the entire set. That popularity has elevated these early trading cards to collectibles status over the years, building a worldwide market for something that at one time came free inside a package of gum or cigarettes. Today, some early and rare examples of trade cards and the baseball cards that soon followed, in mint condition, can realize millions at auction. No wonder the trading card market is exploding, with both old and new companies introducing cards of their own and banking on their future collectability and value.

The earliest known examples of trade cards hail from Europe in the 1670s. They were printed in black and white on some type of paper and advertised a good, trade, or a specific seller. They often included artistic elements with a blank area for specific information unique to the issuer of the cards. Here in the U.S., trade cards—also known as cigarette or tobacco cards because they were inserted into paper packs of cigarettes as stiffeners to protect the contents—are the ancestors of trading cards and were used as a form of advertising by retail companies to promote their products or brands. By 1900, there were thousands of tobacco card sets manufactured by 300 different companies. Children would stand outside of stores to ask customers who bought cigarettes for the promotional cards.

The first baseball cards were trade cards printed in the late 1860s by a sporting goods company, around the time baseball became a professional sport. Most of the baseball cards around the beginning of the 20th
century came in candy and tobacco products. It was during this era that the most valuable baseball cards ever printed were produced.

By the 1930s, companies began printing athletes’ biographies on baseball cards and selling them in packs of bubble gum. In 1933, the Goudey Gum Company of Boston issued baseball cards with players’ biographies on the backs and was the first to put baseball cards in bubble gum. In 1949, Topps Chewing Gum started inserting trading cards into bubble gum packs with sets that featured athletes, cinema stars, and big game hunters. They also produced their first baseball trading card set in 1951, designed to resemble playing cards.

Trading cards moved from the sports arena into the gaming world by the close of the 20th century with the popularity of the Pokémon franchise and the introduction of character trading cards. The first series, issued in Japan, contained 102 illustrated cards. One year after the U.S. release of Pokémon in 1998, the Pokémon Trading Card Game was introduced to North America. Today, it is estimated that 30 billion Pokémon cards have been printed, creating a worldwide market for card sales. While the majority of cards sell in the $150 range for binders and complete packs, YouTuber Logan Paul paid a reported $5.275 million in a private sale for the only PSA 10 copy of a Pikachu Illustrator card known to exist, setting the Guinness World Record for the most expensive Pokémon card sold privately. Trading cards have also moved deeper into the world of entertainment.

Disney, the powerhouse of brand extensions, introduced its new trading card game, Disney Lorcana, in 2023 in celebration of its 100th Anniversary. The game allows players to wield magic to summon Disney characters. Three Starter Decks have been released with cards that feature more than 200 original pieces of Disney art (which have already made them a hugely popular collectible for collectors). The addition of Booster Packs, Gift Sets, and an Illumineer’s Trover (a complete collectibles set) is designed to keep the market active and build card value. Already, “Elsa – Spirit of Winter” from the Enchanted set, has a re-sale market value of $700.
Disney, however, was not the first franchise to introduce trading cards as a way to promote their brand among collectors and fans. In June of 1977, The Topps Company introduced the 1977 Topps Star Wars Series 1 trading card set to a fan base like none other. The set was based on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and featured stills from the film, promotional photos, and behind-the-scenes photos, all within a blue starfield border. The backs of the cards featured “Story Summary” or “Movie Facts” information. The set was a hit for Topps and today, a few limited rare cards in excellent condition from this first release can and have sold for more than $50,000!

The new 21st-century global powerhouse in the trading card arena today is Panini, whose stickers and trading cards have captured sports fans from around the world, with each annual release reflecting the teams, players, and tournaments fans and collectors love to follow across all popular sports. In 2022, it was projected that 100 million packets of Panini stickers were sold in the U.S. alone! Worldwide, the demand is even greater. When Argentina ran out of stickers in September of 2022, its secretary of commerce called an emergency meeting to solve this national crisis. You can learn more about the Panini collector revolution in our January issue.

In this issue dedicated to Ephemera, we also explore the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University and the collector who kept the funny pages alive, get a history lesson on Advertising Trade Cards, and learn more about non-sport card collectibles at auction in our interview with Alex Winter, president of Hakes Auctions. We also kick off the New Year with our Annual Show Directory. Here, you can find hundreds of antique and vintage shows and markets taking place across the country, throughout the year. This extensive list of new and the return of old shows is proof that nothing beats a live experience to shop for the things we love to collect.