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A Beginner's Guide to Pre-War Sports Cards

Collecting pre-war sports cards is like stepping into a time machine, giving us a glimpse of the early 20th century when cards were found in cigarette packs, candy boxes, and even bread loaves. These cards, produced before World War II, captured moments of history, sports, and pop culture while laying the foundation for what we now know as the modern sports card collecting hobby. If you're new to pre-war card collecting, this guide is here to get you started.


The Origins of the Pre-War Sports Cards

In the mid-1800s, trading cards were created by businesses to promote their goods and services. "Trade cards" were cheap and effective ways to advertise at a time when marketing methods were limited. At this point, trading cards weren't the product; they were accessories, a marketing gimmick to sell more candy and give you a reason to buy a different brand of bread.


Fast forward to the late 1800s, and trading cards entered the mainstream consciousness, all because of the cigarette. Tobacco companies began including trading cards featuring athletes and important historical figures in packs of cigarettes to i) stiffen the packaging and ii) create collectible items that would encourage customers to buy more cigarettes.

To help organize the sets created during the pre-war period (1886-1941), a collector named Jefferson Burdick, considered to be the "Father of Card Collecting," wrote "The American Card Catalog: The Standard Guide on All Collected Cards and Their Values."


Fun Fact: According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jefferson Burdick wanted to donate his 300,000 item collection to the Museum, but the curator of prints and photographs was dissatisfied with the initial organization and storage system of the gift. The curator had Burdick organize the collection himself into albums in the museum as a condition of the donation. "Burdick spent the next fifteen years in the Museum creating a structure for various types of contemporary advertising material" that would go on to be the foundation of, "The American Card Catalog".


We'll be using Burdick's framework within "The American Card Catalog" to introduce the different types of sets issued during this period.


The American Card Catalog

The nascent trading card industry was missing one critical component - a way to organize all the trading cards that had been created. Enter "The American Card Catalog," Jefferson Burdick's card collecting bible, which outlined what would become the de-facto method of identifying, naming, and classifying pre-war cards.


The System

Product categories were established and assigned a letter. Each set or issuance was then assigned a number. For example, the 1887 Allen & Ginter set, a 19th-century tobacco card set, can be broken down into the following:

  • N - The letter assigned to all 19th-century tobacco cards.

  • 28 - The number assigned to the 1887 Allen & Ginter tobacco card set.


The Pre-War Sports Card Sets

N-Cards (19th Century Tobacco)

The earliest trading cards made were 19th-century tobacco cards. You might recognize some of the brands, such as Allen & Ginter, Gypsy Queen, and Goodwin Champions, that were resurrected a century later by Topps and Upper Deck. These sets were the predecessors to the iconic tobacco cards produced at the beginning of the 20th century. Cap Anson and King Kelly, arguably baseball's first two superstars, are the most notable players in these sets.


Notable Sets

  • 1887 N28 Allen & Ginter

  • 1887 N175 Gypsy Queen

  • 1887 N172 Old Judge

  • 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions

D-Cards (Bakery/Bread)

D-Series sets were promotional trading cards issued with bread and other bakery products at the beginning of the 20th century. Typically rarer than other types of cards issued during the period, these cards vary in size and color. The most expensive D-series card is Honus Wagner's 1910 Tip Top Bread which sold for $164k in May 2023. If it looks familiar, that's because it uses the same image that was used in Wagner's iconic T206 card.


Notable Sets

  • 1911 D310 Pacific Coast Biscuit

  • 1910 D322 Tip-Top Bread Pirates

  • 1916 D381 Fleischmann's Bread

  • 1921 D383 Koester's Bread World Series Issue

E-Cards (Caramel)

At the beginning of the 20th century, caramels were one of the most popular candies in the United States. Important enough to warrant their own standalone category in the "American Card Catalog", caramel issue sports cards introduced higher contract color usage to appeal to their target audience: children. As the popularity of caramels grew, so did the appeal of collecting the trading cards that accompanies them. These sets prominently featured players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Christy Matthewson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and some Babe Ruth's earliest cards.


Notable Sets

  • 1909-11 E90-1 American Caramel

  • 1914 E145-1 Cracker Jack

  • 1915 E145-2 Cracker Jack

  • 1903 E107 Breisch Williams

  • 1921 E121 American Caramel Co.

  • 1922 E120 American Caramel Co.

  • 1922 E122 American Caramel Co.


F-Cards (Food-Ice Cream & Dairy)

Nestled in the tail end of the roaring 1920's was the F50 ice cream issue. Distributed through Sweetman, Harrington's, Tharp's, and Yuengling (Yes, that Yuengling), the card fronts were identical while the card backs features different advertisements for each of the brands. Notable subjects in the checklist include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and Ty Cobb.


Notable Sets

  • 1928 F50 Sweetman

  • 1928 F50 Harrington's Ice Cream

  • 1928 F50 Tharp's Ice Cream

  • 1928 F50 Yuengling's Ice Cream


M-Cards (Publications)

Long before there were "Sports Illustrated for Kids" trading cards, there were the Sporting News trading cards. Sporting News, a print magazine created in 1886 was the dominant publication covering American baseball and was dubbed, the "Bible of Baseball". Printed on sepia card stock, the Sporting News M101-4 and M101-5 are most well-known for featuring rookie cards of Babe Ruth. The set was released as an advertising promotion within the magazine and carries a series of different card backs for collectors to pursue.

Notable Sets

  • 1916 M101-4 Sporting News

  • 1915 M101-5 Sporting News


R-Cards (Gum)

Perfectly paired items: peanut butter and jelly, pen and paper, lock and key, gum and baseball cards. The "R" designation includes one of the most iconic sets of the pre-war era, 1933 Goudey. The 1933 Goudey set, also called the "Big League Chewing Gum" set, revolutionized design and aesthetics of sports cards. Printed on durable card stock, using a high contrast color palette, and depicting accurate and appealing portraits, the set established a new standard for trading cards. These would be the brands that paved the way for Bowman and Topps to succeed in the post-war trading card period.


Notable Sets

  • 1933 R319 Goudey

  • 1934 R320 Goudey

  • 1934-36 R327 Diamond Stars

  • 1933 R333 Delong

  • 1939 R334 Play Ball

  • 1940 Play Ball

  • 1941 Goudey

  • 1941 Play Ball


T-Cards (20th Century Tobacco)

The T-Series cards are the most important and influential category in "The American Card Catalog". Reigning supreme is the T206 set which is easily the king of pre-war sports cards. The 524 card checklist created an entire generation of card collectors and is still one of the most highly collected sets over a century later. Not to mention, the Honus Wagner T206 is the most recognizable and valuable sports card outside of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. Outside of the T206, the T204 and T205 sets are both considered Top 10 pre-war sets and were hugely influential to the future of sports cards.


Notable Sets

  • 1911 T3 Turkey Red

  • 1909 T204 Ramly

  • 1911 T205 "Gold Borders"

  • 1909-11 T206 "White Borders"

  • 1910 T210 Old Mill


W-Cards (Strips/Exhibits)

The "W" series cards are unique compared to the other category designations. This category features "Strip" cards which were sold to customers as full sheets or strips for collectors to cut out themselves which is why you'll often see the "Hand cut" designation on graded copies. Exhibits on the other hand were released by the Exhibit Trading Company as the first standalone trading card product. Larger than other trading cards at the time, Exhibits more closely resembled post cards with blank backs or simple text.


Notable Sets

  • 1920-21 W514 Strips

  • 1946-49 W603 Sports Exchange


WG-Cards (Game Cards)

Cards with the "WG" classification were cards sold as part of a card game. These card games were typically sold as a complete set in deck form. Players would flip cards to simulate a baseball game. Because these cards were issued as full sets, they aren't as rare as other contemporary trading card issues, but can provide a fun and accessible entry point for new pre-war collectors.


Notable Sets

  • 1906 WG2/3 Fan Craze

  • 1914 WG4 Polo Ground Card Game


V-Cards/C-Cards (Non-United States Cards)

The "V" and "C" designation were reserved for sets created outside of the United States. Most of the sets in this category were hockey cards made in Canada and feature players like Art Ross and Georges Vezina (Names you might recognize for the awards named after them).


Notable Sets

  • 1910-11 C56 Imperial Tobacco (Hockey, Canada)

  • 1911-12 C55 Imperial Tobacco (Hockey, Canada)

  • 1923-24 V145-1 William Patterson (Hockey, Canada)

  • 1933-34 V129 Anonymous (Hockey, Canada)


 

There are so many different ways to collect pre-war sports cards. You can dive deep and try to complete the full T206 run. You can dip your toe in and buy a card or two of a historic figure. You can focus on collecting different types of card backs. You can stick to a production type. Regardless of how you approach collecting from this era, you'll learn about the hobby's history and the players that paved the way for our modern sports landscape. Start small, find what you like, and enjoy!

 

FAQ's

Q: What are pre-war sports cards?

A: Pre-war trading cards refer to collectible cards produced before World War II, typically before 1939. They feature a variety of subjects, including sports figures, historical events, celebrities, and more.


Q: Where can I purchase pre-war sports cards? A: Pre-war sports cards are readily available on platforms like eBay and PWCC's fixed price marketplace. There are also auction houses specialize in selling cards from this era like Robert Edwards Auctions, Huggins and Scott Auctions, Heritage, and Mile High Auction Co.


Q: Is it expensive to collect pre-war sports cards?

A: There are pre-war sports cards for collectors of all budgets to collect. Not every collector can afford a T206 Eddie Plank or 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth, but you can acquire copies of lesser known players from those sets at very affordable prices. Prices will depend on the player and the set. Sites like Card Ladder and Vintage Card Prices (VCP) can help you determine values of cards you're interested in.


Other Resources to Explore

OldCardboard - Robust source of pre-war sports card information

PreWarCards - A blog and database for pre-1948 sports cards

Net54 - Vintage and pre-war focused sports card forums

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