Peeking into the Past

When tasked with writing a story for this website as part of my summer internship with the Summerlee Museum, I was excited to try writing a story about an everyday object which I knew absolutely nothing about. Why was I excited about this? Because I’ve long had a theory that even the smallest, most everyday and insignificant material can become a mode through which human perspective of the world is negotiated. Essentially, I wanted to prove this theory!

I am happy to confirm that not only I have proved this theory to myself, but also that I have gained a new interest in cartophily (hobby of cigarette-card collection), and a new perspective on the way objects can be used to control the way we interact with and view the world.

When visiting museums, we are often drawn to the biggest, shiniest, most exciting objects, and we often omit the small, everyday things. However, cigarette cards prove that it is through finding out the stories of the ordinary things, used by ordinary persons, that we learn the most about the people of the past.

When researching cigarette cards, I began by trying to understand their function and situation within history. Right away, it became clear that these small pieces of paper were filled with cigarette companies’ ideals of the world, which included creating a perfect world where the population only smokes their brand of tobacco. The role of the cigarette cards was to make this ideal world become true.

Cigarette cards also reflect the conditions of the world at the time they were produced. This is because their existence was only possible because of the invention of industrial cigarette rolling machines, mass printing, and because the British population was already familiar with, and fond of, the concept of advertisement-card collection and brand loyalty.

Soon, however, I discovered that cigarette cards’ functions were not limited to those established by their producers (stiffening cigarette packs or developing brand loyalty). They were also tools used for playing, sources of knowledge, modes of building personal identity, and ways of establishing new systems of trade value. These small, mass-produced objects, with seemingly little individual merit, took on a life of their own with each interaction with every individual.

Some cigarette cards were quickly reduced to rubbish, some became treasured personal possessions, and some ended up in a museum collection as artefacts. Moreover, as seen through the marks ingrained in their material bodies, each card was treated differently – Some were stored in pockets, scratched, folded, reshaped, thrown around. Others were stuck on a wall with a piece of blue tack; some were neatly placed in collection albums with barely a scratch on them. Although mass-produced, each of these objects affected the person which came across them, and new functions and meanings for these little pieces of disposable cardboard were created.

This perhaps became most apparent during my research when I came across a paper by FG Maunsell, titled ‘A Problem in Cartophily’, written in 1938. The paper begins as follows:

I should like to say straightaway that collecting cigarette-cards is not my hobby. But recently the manufacturers of the brand of cigarette I smoke started to issue an attractive series of card and I said to a friend, “I think I shall save these cards until I obtain the complete set of fifty.” He replied, “About how many packets do you think you will have to buy before you get the set?” And this raises an interesting problem in probability which I do not recollect having seen before.

FG Maunsell, 1938. ‘A problem in cartophily’, The Mathematical Gazette, p. 328.

Maunsell goes on to write out a range of complicated calculations which seem to answer the question, and the answer is presented through a perfectly dense layer of mathematical jargon. What was interesting to me, however, was the way this short paragraph summarises the power of a cigarette card.

Maunsell, who was not a collector, was so intrigued by the object that he considered starting a new hobby to fulfil his desire of having an entire set! This is evidence of just how effective the cigarette card campaign was.

Moreover, the card makes him curious about his own relationship with the world, and the way that the world works, by inviting him to experience it though a framework he is familiar with – maths! This shows that objects not only appeal to our desires, but how we interact with them also reflects our personal knowledge, experience, and perspective of the world. We create meaning for objects, as well as through them.

And so, I hope that this short exercise and a summary of my personal experiences with the cigarette cards, underlines how each museum object, even the smallest, and the most every day, has the potential to work as a medium through which we can peek into the private lives, perspectives, desires, and experiences of people of the past!

So, stay nosy, and find out more about the lives of people of North Lanarkshire through North Lan’s material stories.

About the Author

Gabriela Szymanska was a Material Culture &  Artefact Studies masters student in 2020/2021.