The Origins of Baseball Cards
The tradition of collecting baseball cards can be traced back to the late 19th century when cigarette and tobacco companies began including premiums, or small gifts, inside their packs and tins to entice customers. Some of the earliest known baseball cards date back to the late 1880s and were included by tobacco manufacturers as these premiums. While the exact origins are unknown, most historians credit the American Tobacco Company with releasing the first widely distributed set of baseball cards as part of their cigarette brand called Old Judge in 1886.
These early tobacco era cards were simply small printed lithographic images featuring individual baseball players that were inserted randomly into tobacco products. The cards did not have any statistics or biographical information about the players. They were meant more as a novelty item and advertising for the tobacco brands rather than a serious collectible. They caught on with both children and adults and helped popularize baseball card collecting as a hobby.
In the early 1890s, several other tobacco companies like Allen & Ginter and Goodwin & Company began producing and distributing their own series of baseball cards as premiums. These early tobacco era sets featured some of the biggest stars of the day like Cy Young, Honus Wagner, and Nap Lajoie. Production and distribution greatly expanded in the late 1890s and early 1900s with companies issuing complete sets on a regular annual basis.
Tobacco brands would hire photographers to take portrait photos of players which were then lithographed directly onto the thin cardboard stock used to make cigarettes. The cards measured about 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, smaller than modern cards. Information printed on the fronts usually just included the player’s name and position. The backs remained blank. Distribution was still random within tobacco products so completing a full set could be challenging for collectors.
The tobacco era is considered the true beginning of organized baseball card collecting as we know it today. These early premium cards helped drive sales of cigarettes and served as effective advertising for both the tobacco brands and major league baseball itself. They also helped connect fans to their favorite players through these small collectible images at a time when many never had the chance to see games in person. By the early 1900s, tobacco companies were producing and distributing hundreds of different baseball cards each year featuring both major and minor league players.
The tobacco era lasted until the 1950s when health concerns over cigarettes led to stricter regulations and the decline of included premiums in tobacco products. But the hobby of baseball card collecting had already taken root. When the tobacco companies stopped, bubble gum manufacturer Topps seized the opportunity and released their first complete baseball card set in 1951 which became the new standard. Topps held the exclusive license for baseball cards until competitors like Fleer and Donruss entered the market in the 1980s. This ushered in the modern era of licensed, mass-produced baseball cards which continues to this day with companies like Upper Deck, Panini, and Leaf.
While the exact origins are unknown, most historians credit tobacco companies like American Tobacco, Allen & Ginter, and Goodwin & Company with first distributing baseball cards as premiums and novelties in the late 1880s. This helped popularize both baseball and the hobby of collecting cards featuring professional players. By the early 1900s, tobacco companies were regularly producing hundreds of different baseball cards each year, driving both fandom and the infant sport of professional baseball itself during the tobacco era. When health concerns later led tobacco companies to stop, Topps and others filled the void to bring about the modern baseball card collecting era we know today. The tradition began as a simple advertising novelty over 130 years ago but grew into a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry and beloved hobby for fans of all ages.