Jessica Helfand | Essays

First In A Series: Cartophily

Ogden Optical Illusion Cards, early 1930s

The practice of saving cigarette cards — a sub-genre of collecting known as cartophily — formally lies somewhere on the spectrum between postage stamps and posters. (If they resemble the former in their diminutive size, they aspire to the latter in their sheer ambition and scope.) Featuring subjects as diverse as racehorses, hieroglyphs, footballers, aircrafts, optical illusions, heraldic symbols, squirrels, pistols, maps and the monarchy, these miniature cards were initially placed in cigarette packages as stiffeners. A history of their popularity and publication can be loosely said to parallel the rise and fall of the tobacco industry as a whole.

Cigarette cards appeal, like many things, because they participate in a larger gestalt: are we compelled by some kind of material challenge? ("Collect 'em all!") Are we drawn to their essential incompleteness, mirroring on some gut level our own incompleteness? Is it optical, formal, emotional — this mesmerizing lure? In this, the first in a series of essays on its baffling appeal, let's ask the basic question:

What is it about the series that fascinates us so?

Ogden "Footballers" Cards, early 1900s

Cigarette cards, as a series, can be traced back to the 1880s — coincidentally, about the time Eadweard Muybridge was conducting experiments on the very subject of the relationship between static and kinetic images. (Muybridge will be considered in a subsequent post, as will Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, handwriting primers, baroque ornament, political campaign buttons, Mallomars, and more.)

Today, it's easy to relegate cigarette cards to a kind of been-there-done-that paper trail — old, dead, dinosaurs of a dessicated era. But a closer look reveals something decidedly more unusual: spanning nearly a century of political propaganda, social history, information design, and the cult of sports worship, the history of cigarette cards offers a fascinating glimpse into the public preoccupations of an earlier age.

Ogden Swimming Instruction Cards, 1930s

Cards were designed in both portrait and landscape formats, and crafted in considerable quantity so as to be able to offer detailed instruction. (Hard to imagine someone referring to a cigarette card when evaluating their double-arm back stroke, but then again, you never know.) Cards highlighting the dos and dont's of, say, bandage wrapping gained some traction during the First World War, when this sort of tutelage might have come in handy. Along the way, there were tarot cards and magic tricks, pin-up girls and celebrity portraits, fish and fowl and oddly, some astonishing bits of technological arcana — detailed illustrations of circuit breakers, induction motors, furnace hoists, and more.

Meanwhile, sports-related cards endured, like these: straddling the line between simple diagram and repeat pattern.

Ogden Swimming Instruction Cards, 1930s

To view the cards as a series, like those shown here, is to gain a crude approximation of a kind of dynamic movement: think of it as a really primitive motion graphic which, in a sense, it was.

Ogden Swimming Instruction Cards, 1930s

If the relationship — and the tension — between what is variable and what is constant can be said to underscore the designer's essential relationship to his or her work, then our relationship to the "series" deserves some real scrutiny. As a genre, cigarette cards — a long-overlooked yet highly engaging pictorial remnant of material culture — embraced sameness and difference with unusual variety, imagination and skill. Mostly unified by their one-to-two format, they nevertheless revealed countless variation in topic and scope, style and personality, seriousness of purpose and goofball whimsy. If the ardent collector defines the amalgamation of disparate items by retaining a fundamental organizing principle, then what is it, exactly, that guides the maker? And enthralls the viewer?

Hardly something to be answered in a single post. Ergo: a series.

Will's Animal Puzzle Cards, early 1920s

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Comments [12]

gosh jessica, i find this piece so incredibly captivating! i really had no idea cigarette cards existed, having been part of the generation that had baseball cards and wackypacks instead (most certainly the inheritors of the cigarette card concept, but bubble gum being the distribution mechanism for pop culture instead of tobacco). this was r. crumb's era.

part of me thinks that the impulse to collect (during their heyday) must have to do with the evolution a "toy" into adulthood. all the images you posted all have a toy, puzzle, curio quality to them, and if in fact adults were the ones who smoked (i don't know what the tobacco age laws were back then, if any), then these cards must have been to adults then what the odds and ends that any child accumlates in their toyboxes were when they were young. it's probably a very primal impulse to hoarde and to gaze, images being a perfect recollection and association device.

i read the external links as well and found it fascinating that there was a battle between the cigarette brands to outdo one another in their cigarette card offerings, obviously locating a cultural artform, a meme, that became viral - a process that the industries of marketing and advertising obsess about even today.

thanks for posting a real thinker today. makes me want to go get a box of cracker jacks.
Gong Szeto

I think these (maybe with some changes in coloring) would make great designs for area rugs.

Those optical illusion cards at the beginning really caught my eye - all three are stunning!

what fascinates people, i.e., those with a collector mentality, is a neurotic obsessive behavior based on hoarding, one-upsmanship, bragging rights etc. this can quickly lead to poindexters wasting their every second on collecting the item of desire, and result in a massive overload of crap as evidenced by the always laughable collyer brothers.
peter pansi

Thanks for this article Jessica. There's a big archive of cigarette cards at NYPL's digital archive:
cheers, A
Aaron Taylor-Waldman

Are we drawn to their essential incompleteness, mirroring on some gut level our own incompleteness?

I've always appreciated Baudrillard's take on this -- the collector always internally resists obtaining the final object in a series, because it marks the completion of a collection, and collections are really about the process of obtaining.

Here in Britain we also had collectible cards in packets of Brooke Bond teas. Discontinued in 1999, apparently, "after a survey of customers showed that they were not contributing to developing the business."

John Coulthart

And I've just had some poignant flashbacks to childhood looking through web pages at old tea cards I hadn't seen for nearly forty years. Thanks Jessica!
John Coulthart

And if someone decided to start a new series of cards, Mike could be an addition to the gallery of "Supercilious and Patronising Tossers Throughout History."
John Coulthart

These cards are a nice instance of the ephemeral bits and pieces of instructions, directions, clues to correct/incorrect behavior and attitude that we encounter all the time in our daily lives. In this case, this swimmer loves the cards on the back stroke — any hints toward improvement, from however unlikely a source, welcome. And thanks to Aaron for the wonderful NYPL link!
I wonder whether and if so how an interest in bygone ephemera connects with our personal aesthetic. A few collecting/accumulating interests of my own may relate to my own ambivalence/tolerance of competing aesthetics. For example, I incline to both Tschichold and Bill’s certainties about typographic restraint (on the one or two hands), yet enjoy and even champion the hodgepodge aesthetic of nineteenth century title pages, their copious and intelligent display of type styles and sizes, that I find in many of my beloved telegraphic code dictionaries.
Look forward to more of the promised posts in this series, thus more opportunities to have second and third thoughts on my own certainties!
John McVey

My dad collected the cigarette cards from his 3-packs-a-day (!!) habit for Raleigh Kings. He tossed them into a fish bowl and when it was full, redeemed them for bigger prizes.

I wasn't allowed to touch them, and therefore was FASCINATED by his huge collection.

Thanks Jessica! I'd totally forgotten about htat

saw a review copy of helfand's upcoming book. no wonder this was a topic of "conversation"- a secret shill for the future (october)
Remy Houtenn

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