The conversation often goes like this:

“Hi I’ve come across a pile of old footy cards among my Dad’s/Grandfather’s/Uncle’s things. There’s a few hundred of them and they are black and white with “Wills” on the back. Can you tell me what they are worth and how I go about selling them?”

After delivering the bad news, the conversation then ends with; “But how can something be so old and worth so little?” 

Let me tell you why…

If you’ve ever delved into the world of card collecting, you might have noticed that cigarette cards from the 1930s are surprisingly abundant compared to collectibles from later, and even earlier decades. This isn’t just by chance; there are five main reasons behind this.

Grown-ups collected them: Unlike many other collectibles, like those found in early chocolate bars and lolly wrappers, or in cereal boxes and gum packets post-World War II, cigarette cards were typically collected by adults. This meant they weren’t subjected to the same kind of wear and tear as those collected by over-enthusiastic, sticky-fingered kids. They weren’t folded, flicked, or stuck into the spokes of a wheel, hence they were far more likely to survive over time – in larger numbers and better condition.

Smokin’ hot popularity: Back in the 1930s, smoking was much more common than it is today. Practically everyone had a pack of cigarettes in their pocket or wedged into their sleeve, and these packs often came with a bonus card or two inside. This made cigarette cards both incredibly abundant and widespread – many people were adding new cards to their collection every day!

Everything was a keepsake: Back then, the idea of throwing things away was quite foreign. The necessary austerity that arose during the Great Depression and World War II years meant that everything was used and reused, and disposable income was a concept unknown, so people held onto their possessions. Cigarette cards found a cosy home in tin boxes or albums, cherished for their nostalgic value and collectability.

Pre-screen era pastimes: In a time before smartphones and Netflix, people had to make their own fun, or find entertainment at home – and boy did they! They’d read books, hold sing-alongs leaning against the piano, or gather intently around the wireless. Collecting cigarette cards was one of these home-bound hobbies; even Geoff Sullivan in the TV show “The Sullivans” was a collector, and proudly displayed his album in one episode. The grown-up hobbyist, or dedicated boy or girl would harass every adult they knew for more cards, and meticulously organise and treasure them, contributing to their survival rates.

Appealing subjects: To make things even more interesting, cigarette card series from well-known manufacturers like W.D. & H.O. Wills, Godfrey Phillips (BDV), Carreras Tobacco, Turf, and John Player & Sons were not just pretty common, but they covered a broad range of topics, from military, through royalty, nature, household hints and sport. For example, Wills’ “Aviation” series showcased daring aviators and their planes, offering a glimpse into the early days of flight. Godfrey Phillips’ released several series celebrating the world of sports, featuring legendary footballers such as Collingwood’s Coventry brothers, cricket’s champion batsman Don Bradman, and of course the great horse Phar Lap. Carreras Tobacco, known for its artistic flair, produced popular series such as “Famous Film Stars” and “Wild Animals,” offering the viewers a glimpse of far-away journeys. Meanwhile, Churchman’s “Kings of Speed” series put the pedal to the metal, featuring racing cars, ships, planes, athletes, and more.

Alas today, interest in 1930s cigarette cards has waned, as the old collectors disappear, never to be replaced. Whereas we once threw things in a tin or stuck them in an album, today we download, forget and eventually, dispose of everything, with so much of what we value never even being physically held in our hands. To me those cards will always remain; not just as collectibles but as windows to a different time. I still hold out hope that new collectors and enthusiasts will appear, and come to discover these treasures, keeping a fascinating era alive, one card at a time. 

So, the next time you stumble upon a pile of these vintage gems, remember that they may not be that rare or valuable, but you’re still holding a piece of history, something that might have passed through many hands in its lifetime, perhaps even one of your ancestors!

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