FILM STAR CIGARETTE CARDS
Between the World Wars, the happy coincidence of the Golden Age of Hollywood films with that of cigarette cards created an affordable and fascinating field for today's collectors.
Between the wars, the major movie studios fought for audiences by promoting the stellar qualities of their contracted players. Cigarette cards were just a small cog in the Hollywood publicity machine, but a collection of them can put more stars in your hand for less money than any other medium.
In the 1920s and 1930s, few packets of cigarettes were sold without the inclusion of a picture card with text on the reverse. These often attractive promotional items were collected from the start. This was the whole point of them; the desire to have the complete set would, the manufacturers hoped, ensure smokers' loyalty to their brands, and they supplied albums to encourage collectors.
Originating in the USA sometime in the second half of the 19th century, cigarette cards were launched in Britain as weapons in a trade war around the turn of the century, fought between American Tobacco and its British subsidiaries such as Ogdens and Imperial Tobacco, a conglomerate of 13 companies
led by WD & H O Wills.
Stage personalities, and pretty actresses in particular, appeared on some of the first British cigarette cards; even then, sex was the advertiser's first resort.
When Hollywood took over as the world capital of glamour in the early 1920s, its denizens became one of the most popular of all card subjects.
Some cards featured promotional photos or paintings of the stars created by the Hollywood studio system, while others were stills from famous
films. The majority carried text that uncritically rehashed the often highly fictionalized biographical material put out by studio publicity departments.
In the 1930s, cigarette card collecting in general became an organized and widespread hobby, with
enormous potential for further growth, but World War 2 and its paper and cigarette shortages put an end to the issue of cards, and they weren't revived with any success after 1945.
Since then, cards have been and are used as promotional items with other goods, such as tea, bubble gum, chocolate, comics and cigars, or by junior cinema clubs. Trade cards, as they are known, are rarely of as good quality as cigarette cards. They are collected, but nowhere near as avidly as the pre-war cards, which children scrounged from relatives or from complete strangers emerging from tobacconist's shops and which were a basic currency of playgrounds well into the 1950s.
A Price Guide and Checklist
Robert Forbes, Terence Mitchell
There's no point collecting cinema-related cards unless you're interested in films or Hollywood in general; they have no real investment potential. If you are interested, though, cigarette cards can make a fascinating collection. There are hundreds of sets, and many ways to specialize. You could collect only large format or photographic cards, or concentrate on a particular tobacco company or period, such as the silent cinema. This is one area where sets are not
the be-all and end-all of cigarette cards. You can try instead to find all the cards featuring some favourite stars.
Collectors tend to prefer sets, though. It's possible, and more fun, to build up sets of your own, but this gets increasingly difficult as time goes by; most people go for readymade sets. All the cards should be in at least good condition. Creased, dog-eared or stained veterans of flicking contests and of far too many schoolboy pockets have no value.
Card dealers and auctions are the best place to look for good-quality sets, but you'll have to pay the full market price. Other collectors, whom you can contact through specialist shops or local libraries, may well be prepared to sell or barter cards, while card fairs will also be a happy hunting ground.
If you're looking for bargains, though, or want the thrill of building up your own sets, first try friends and relatives who may have a tin of cards lying in an attic or broom cupboard with other childhood treasures. Charity or junk shops, flea markets, boot sales and so on may well have job lots of cards for a pound or two.
Original custom-made albums are far from ideal for storing cards, which had to be stuck down or shoved into mounts that damaged the corners. Only one side of a card would show, though the text was usually reprinted in the album below the space reserved for it.
Formerly, collections were housed in boxes or old cigarette packets, but nowadays all serious collectors use loose-leaf albums with transparent plastic pockets, which protect the card and allow you to examine both sides of it. These can be had from any specialist dealer or by mail order. There are also framing kits for displaying sets on walls, though direct sunlight will fade wall-mounted cards.
Cards are best kept at room temperature; extremes of heat, cold, aridity and damp can all cause problems. Be particularly careful with cards that have been produced with gummed backs for sticking in albums.
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