WHEN DID BASEBALL CARDS FIRST COME OUT

In the 1870s, baseball was rapidly growing in popularity in the United States. Entrepreneurs began printing trade cards, which were small cardboard pieces that advertised various products such as tobacco, food items, and other consumer goods. These trade cards often featured famous baseball players of the day on them in addition to advertisements. While not the earliest, the consensus is that a tobacco manufacturer named Goodwin & Company was the first to distribute baseball cards as part of their cigarette packages in 1869.

During the following decades, tobacco companies like Ogden, Sweet Caporal, and Old Judge became major producers of baseball cards included with their products. These early baseball cards served as advertisements and helped generate interest in both the players featured and the tobacco brands themselves. The tobacco cards linked baseball to a widely consumed product which helped promote both the sport and baseball stars to a vast American audience. For children especially, the cards offered access to collecting and learning about different ballplayers even if they couldn’t attend games.

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In the 1880s, drug stores and general merchandise shops also started giving out or selling sets of baseball cards as premiums to draw in customers. One of the more famous early sets was called the Mayo Cut Plug Tobacco cards from 1891, which remains highly valued by collectors today. Through the 1890s, production and trading of baseball cards grew steadily along with the booming popularity of pro baseball leagues like the National League.

Into the early 1900s, tobacco brands continued to be central producers of baseball cards due to the cards marketing effectiveness. Companies like American Tobacco Company and Winfield Scott & Co. manufactured extensive baseball card sets distributed in cigarette and smokeless tobacco products. The 1909-1911 T206 set is particularly prized for being among the first cards to include gum or candy with them. Around this period, companies started instituting serial numbers and printing statistics on the backs of cards to provide even more player information to consumers.

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The passage of child labor laws in the 1930s banned the distribution of trading cards in cigarette packages sold in many states, since the youth market was seen being exploited. This caused tobacco companies to cease most baseball card productions. The Great Depression also weakened the public interest in collecting. For several decades, few organized sets were released until the late 1950s when the Topps company revived production of modern era cards. The colorful photographs and statistics of the post-war Topps sets fueled an explosion in card collecting that remains vibrant today.

Baseball cards emerged in the late 19th century as promotional tools for tobacco and other consumer brands. Their growing popularity reflected the sport’s rising stature in American society. While tobacco companies were long the leading card producers, child labor law changes ended that dominance by the 1930s, though Topps resurrected the hobby in the post-WWII period. Early era tobacco cards remain exceedingly rare and sought after by collectors as part of our national pastime’s history.

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