Cigarette Cards: Addicting the Masses

1 min read

Cigarette cards are small pieces of rectangular card which used to be inserted into cigarette packets between the late 1800s and early 1900s. While in the beginning used to stiffen cigarette boxes, these unassuming objects quickly became an ingenious advertising gimmick used by tobacco companies to popularise pre-rolled cigarettes which dominate the market to this day.

Uncovering the history of cigarette cards shows the late 1800s and early 1900s British population’s habits of information, media and tobacco consumption, and displays how collecting can become a way of creating personal identity. Here is a story of how a small piece of card, combined with a smart idea, had the power to mediate the population’s minds, habits and relations to themselves and others.

Beginning of the Addiction

The preferred methods of tobacco consumption in 1800s included pipes, chewing tobacco, cigars, and pre-rolled cigarettes.  Pre-rolled cigarettes were a luxury product. This is because each cigarette was rolled by hand by cigarette factory workers.

This has changed, however, with the introduction of the first tobacco rolling machines, first used in American factories in the early 1880s. Rolling machine technologies were then quickly adopted by the British cigarette companies too. Cigarettes were rolled by the millions every day, making them far cheaper and more easily accessible than before. Yet cigarette companies faced an issue – how to persuade the masses to pick up this new method of consumption? A successful advertisement campaign was necessary, and this is where cigarette cards gained another, more important function.

The blank cigarette cards used to stiffen the cigarette boxes were the perfect medium for advertising and popularising the product.  At first, it might seem odd to give significance to advertisements included inside an already-purchased product, but this is where the consideration of the Victorian (1837-1901) knack for collecting becomes vital.

Addicted to Collecting

Victorians loved to hoard and display things. While the habit of collecting and displaying began with the British elite of the Renaissance period (around 1500s), by the Victorian period (1837-1901) people of all classes enjoyed the hobby.

Through the collecting, curating, and displaying of things, Victorians were able to narrow down their interests and tastes. Collecting helped individuals in the process of self-fashioning their identities, both within the public and private spheres.

Importantly, Victorians experienced the first rush of mass production, meaning it was easier than ever to accumulate things. By the time cigarette cards began being used for advertisement, Victorians were already very familiar with the concept of collecting, curating, and exchanging small pieces of adorned advertisements attached to products. These collectable additions were called ‘trade cards’ and have their beginnings in 1600s Britain and France. And so, adorned cigarette cards inserted into cigarette boxes were a familiar and welcome addition and an attractive invitation to vary up the tobacco consumption style. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a bonus!

Yet cigarette companies did not stop there. While cigarette cards certainly enticed customers to smoking this mass rolled product, companies strived for brand loyalty, especially in young customers, who would be hooked on the product for generations to come. And so, cigarette cards went through a re-invention, with cigarette companies turning their gaze towards advertising specifically to young men.

In 1895, WD & HO Wills was the first British cigarette company to produce a thematic series of cigarette cards, named Soldiers and Ships. Other cigarette companies, such as John Player & Sons, Mitchel & Son and Churchman’s Cigarettes, soon followed suit and began producing their own brightly illustrated sets. Looking back at these initial themes (technology, soldiers, ships, sports, and pretty ladies), it is clear that the sets were designed with young men in mind. This group was selected as young men were the most likely to pick up smoking and were not yet stuck in the old ways of smoking cigars and pipes.

The genius in these advertisements was not only the selection of a particular interest audience, but also the creation of collectable, topical sets of 24 or 50 cards. This aided in the development of brand loyalty as customers were more likely to continue the purchase cigarettes of brands which produced sets they were interested in. The cigarette companies supported this by producing collection albums, specifically for the purpose of collecting and curating sets of cards.

In this way, young men, eager to establish their identity, could collect cigarette cards to self-fashion their interest. Although the buyers were participating in an advertising gimmick aimed at the masses, by weaving through the mass-produced disposable material, there was an illusion of choice and identity creation. You were not just a smoker – you were a smoker of X brand, with a sizable collection of cards on topic Y, and any time you came across a card on topic Z, you passed it on to an associate who collects that set, perhaps in the hopes of a trade. Moreover, by fashioning your own collection of cards, you also fashioned your own knowledge on a particular topic.

Addicted to Knowledge

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of cigarette cards is that they can be viewed as the pinnacle of the relationship between tobacco consumption and knowledge.

The relationship between tobacco consumption and knowledge is underlined by Glasgow’s Stephen Mitchell (of Mitchell & Son Tobacco), funding of a public library in 1877. ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

The relationship between tobacco consumption and knowledge is underlined by Glasgow’s Stephen Mitchell (of Mitchell & Son Tobacco), funding of a public library in 1877 (©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections).

This relationship between smoking and the development of knowledge is best seen in the practice of male bonding over the exchange of ideas and opinions, which often happened in smoking rooms of the 1800s. This practice was particularly prominent among the male bourgeoisie societies, who used these smoking sessions to prove themselves to be intelligent and worldly individuals among their social circles.

"The pipe was still between his lips." Illustration of Sherlock Holmes smoking by Sidney Paget, 1892.

“The pipe was still between his lips.” Illustration of Sherlock Holmes smoking by Sidney Paget, 1892.

Think of the 1800’s most popular smoker, Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist, Holmes, regularly indulges in intelligent monologues fuelled by his nicotine addiction, and often solves his cases either whilst smoking (in The Man with the Twisted Lip, for example) or by observing tobacco-related clues, such as tobacco ash.  Take The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance – Holmes is particularly proud of producing a monograph on the ashes of 140 different tobacco products.

And what’s more, Holmes’ knowledge did not come from the reading of books, but from the mindful manipulation of the information he obtained by consuming mass-produced media and tobacco products. Susan Zinger, author of ‘The Mediated Mind’, says that:

[Holmes’] media ‘addiction’—really a reliance on trivial information—reflects the readers’ desire for encyclopaedic knowledge. Such desires for cultural mastery drove the popularity of cigarette cards, which featured trivia, and became a staple of working- and middle-class life from their invention in the 1890s.

Zinger, S. 2019. The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century, p.4.

Cigarette cards were a means through which you could satisfy this thirst for knowledge. Aware of the relationship between smoking and knowledge in popular culture, cigarette companies began to print blocks of informational text on the reverse of the cards. And so, rather than reading inaccessible and expensive books, one could, just like Sherlock, accumulate massive amounts of information through these easily collectable objects.

Cigarette cards were cheap and easy to produce, and so new sets appeared regularly, often reflecting the most recent developments in technology, Hollywood, sports, and popular events. By keeping up to date with the current affairs and tastes, cigarette companies were, to an extent, able to both reflect and control the information consumed by the public. When looking at the types of information included in the cards on popular personalities, it is also clear that cigarette cards were the perfect means of amassing an arsenal of factoids useful in everyday conversations.

By collecting card sets, you could create a mini encyclopedia on any topic, and with the broadening selection of topics (associated with increase in popularity of cigarettes among various social groups), one could find a set to satisfy any taste or curiosity.

Out on the Street, Playing the Addicting Game

It was not long after the first cigarette cards appeared on market that children realised that they would like to participate in the play of collecting. However, as children often do, they developed new methods of interacting with the material. Children invented their own cigarette card games. Kids also invented their own value exchange systems for cigarette card trading.

Yet again, however, cigarette companies picked up on the new uses of their cards and began producing sets with distinct game play instructions, assuring that all members of the family were keen to develop loyalty to their particular brand of cigarettes.

The relationship between information, addiction and tobacco consumption also impacted the youngest members of society. At a time when many questioned the education system, cigarette cards were a place where kids could gain knowledge outside of the classroom.

The End of the Addiction

Cigarette cards hit their heyday in 1930s. However, with the arrival of the Second World War and paper shortages, their production was halted and they never picked up a big following again. After the war, cigarette companies continued to produce collector series, however with the 1962 Royal College of Physician’s recommendation for the limitation of tobacco product advertisement, cigarette cards essentially fell out of use, and, for the first time in decades, cigarette sales decreased.

Though aesthetically pleasing and informative, cigarette cards played a big role in addicting the masses to tobacco products and were arguably one of the key strategies used by cigarette companies to assure the high sales of their product. It was an impressive, yet unfortunate campaign, which resulted in eight out of ten British men and four out of ten British women being addicted to cigarettes by the 1940s.

Reflecting on the history of cigarette cards shows us the beginning of the masses’ obsession with information consumption and shows us how even the smallest object can change the habits, knowledge and identities of millions.

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