Smoke Signals

Cigarette Cards from the 19th and 20th Centuries

A photo of the Smoke Signals exhibition, featuring the cigarette card panels, a flattened cigarette box, and the book

One of the earliest forms of direct-to-consumer advertising was trade cards (or tradesman cards), probably first issued in the US in the 1840s. Much like business cards, they were used by purveyors to promote a product or service to potential customers. To boost sales, colorful pictures of interesting topics were printed on the cards, and often series of cards on a specific topic were produced. Prominent among American trade card distributors were coffee producers, soap makers, and manufacturers of sewing products such as needles and thread.

The proliferation of trade cards as an effective advertising device occurred at the same time as tobacco products (snuff, chewing tobacco and cigarettes) became popular among American consumers. In the 1880s cigarette manufacturers such as Allen and Ginter of Richmond, Virginia, and W. Duke and Sons of Durham, North Carolina, began to sell their ‘smokes’ in packages—often in a two-piece ‘slide and shell’ box for 5 cents a box (see example in this display). This packaging required a cardboard ‘stiffener’ to be placed between the two rows of cigarettes to protect them from being crushed. With the simultaneous development of lithography and commercial photography, the manufacturers soon realized they could print pictures on these cardboard inserts and use them as trade cards to promote their brand.

Because cigarette manufacturers targeted men with their advertising, the illustrations on the insert cards featured what were considered male-centric interests at the time: sports, the military, the natural world, and depictions of women. Many different series, usually of 25 or 50 cards on a specific subject, were developed to promote consumer loyalty by encouraging the purchase of the same brand until all cards in a particular series had been collected. One series of 50 cards entitled ‘The World’s Champions,’ produced in 1888 by Allen and Ginter, contained images of 10 popular baseball players of the day, including Charles Comiskey and “Cap” Anson. They are reputed to be the earliest “baseball cards” ever distributed.

Angling was a popular pastime in late nineteenth century and representation of the sport on tobacco insert cards was a logical outcome. The first set of 50 cards, entitled ‘Fish from American Waters,’ was produced by Allen and Ginter in 1889. The cards display a great variety of North American fish in exquisite detail and with great accuracy. Not to be outdone, W. Duke & Sons, led by its entrepreneurial boss Buck Duke, produced its own series of 50 cards called ‘Fishers and Fish,’ which also used high grade lithography to depict common American fish. Intense competition among numerous American cigarette manufacturers in the late 1880s led to the production of hundreds of different series of cards, many of which have remained quite collectible to this day. A second surge in the production of cigarette cards occurred after the turn of the century, and the first 20th century fishing-related insert cards were created by several
companies between 1907 and 1910. The 50 original Allen and Ginter cards were reproduced, and 50 more cards were added soon thereafter by the Sweet Caporal and Piedmont Tobacco Companies.

While the cigarette card concept originated in America, British tobacco companies eventually caught on, and in the first half of the 20th century they also produced huge numbers of cards as well, many of which are actively collected and traded to this day. In 1928, the Stephen Mitchell Company produced a series of 25 cards of particular interest to fly fishers. Each card portrays a classic British fishing stream, and includes an inset featuring either a species of fish associated with the locale or a drawing of an appropriate fly for those waters.

The book The Story of Cigarette Cards by Martin Murray provides much greater detail about the many different types of cards and their interesting history.


Collection of cigarette cards, cigarette packaging and The Story of Cigarette Cards
Gift of Susan and James Heckman

A painting of a Tarpon.
A painting of a striped bass in the water.
A painting of a man fishing in a stream, with an inset of a dry fly labeled