Hamilton, Ontario and the Pre-war Hockey Trading Card

By Joachim Brouwer

 Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal  are usually associated with pre-World War Two hockey trading cards, an obscure niche in the multi-billion dollar sports card and memorabilia market. Most price guides including the well known Becketts start their compendium of listings with Parkhurst’s 1951-52 set.                

But another locale must now be added to the list. The City of Hamilton, Ontario is a little better known in the long list of North American industrial cities, its high manufacturing output and distinct working class consciousness having made it a model of study for capitalists and labor activists alike. It less known among cartophilists or collectors of cigarette, candy or chewing gum cards.           

Tucked in between smoky, noisy factories turning out everything from riding whips, cast iron stoves and sewing machines and later radios and hydroelectric turbines were two business putting out a product, whose aftermarket collecting values have outstripped almost anything else that has survived the heyday of Hamilton’sindustrial and commercial past.              

Toronto and London may figure most prominently in the post World War Two modern era of hockey cards with its respective Parkhurst and O-Pee-Chee brands  but the city of Hamilton perched between these two at the western tip of Lake Ontario is where two of the most important hockey trading cards ever created were designed, printed, packaged and distributed.              

In the 1920’s, Hamilton, the fifth largest city in Canada actually had a National Hockey League (NHL) franchise. Although the Hamilton Bulldogs only lasted half a decade, the once upon a time proudly self- proclaimed Ambitious City has sought a NHL franchise on several occasions since then.                

By the mid 1920’s Hamilton was in the grip of hockey fever.  Rum runner Ben Kerr had built a sleek wooden speed boat The Polliwog at the foot of Land Ave, just north of the Barton St Arena where the Tigers played . Kerr was said  to have entertained Tiger players in his large Bay St South home. He and mobster Rocco Perri were also reputed to have betted on Tiger games.               

1924-25 was a pivotal year for the fledging National Hockey League which was still vying with several western leagues for possession of the Stanley Cup . The NHL had admitted their first American team, the Boston Bruins. A second Montreal team, the Maroons was also granted a franchise.              

The idea of putting images of sporting figures on little scraps of paper to signify, commemorate or promote fan favorites was only a few decades old. They weren’t meant to be collected or become investment items like today.             

Three hockey-only trading card issues were released in 1924-25- the C-144 Hamilton Tobacco Products `Champs’ , the V-145 William Patterson and the V-130 Maple Crispette sets. A multi-sport issue with many hockey players, the V-31 Dominion Chocolate also dates from this year. (The prefix C indicates a Canadian tobacco issue while the letter V refers to the fact the cards came from a  candy or gum related product which was replacing cigarettes as the primary source of trading cards , although the size of the cards stayed more or less the same).               

The plethora of hockey card issues in 1924-25 would not be duplicated until  nine years later when another made-in-Hamilton product would anchor a quartet of hockey-only card sets.                

In the Hamilton Tigers last season, the back end of 1924 and front end of 1925, the tiny ad department of Hamilton Tobacco Products Corporation also known as Tuckett Tobacco Company Limited researched, designed, printed and packaged  a sixty count  sepia toned white bordered set of NHL hockey players that featured many of the Tigers.            

Sizing in at 2 ½  by 1 ½ inch, the standard measurement  for cigarette cards, the set is one of the last cigarette card issues ever released in North America. The set is also unique, since it may have been created solely to promote the hometown team. The Hamilton Tobacco Products issue unlike almost all cigarette cards ever made, has the name of its maker was bolded stated on the back.              

The set nicknamed `Champ’s’ was given the designation C-144 by the legendary Jeffrey Burdick who catalogued thousands of pre-war sports and non- sports cards sets in the first half of the 20th century.           

The founder of the Hamilton Tobacco Corporation, George Tuckett was born in Exeter ,England and started making cigars with a handful of employees in the 1850’s. His wife would often sell them in outdoors markets and fairs. In 1862, Tuckett and partner Alfred Quimby started making plug tobacco, loose strands of  leaves  that could be smoked in pipes. The Civil War in the US was a boon to their business. It is said the two  even went behind Confederate lines to purchase bales of raw tobacco from Southern growers.        

For twenty years, George Elias Tuckett, his son George Thomas and another partner John Billings operated a small shop at Hughson and Main. In 1891, the conglomerate built a five story factory at the northwest corner of Queen and Grieg in the north end of the city just south of the Grand Trunk Railway Station . Raw tobacco was lifted to the top floor and going through various stages of production descended downward until the finished result in colorful shiny metal tins came out the receiving doors at street level.              

By 1896, Tucketts was ready to begin production of the latest smoking sensation, small pre-rolled sticks of tobacco called cigarettes. T and B (after Billings) were the first Tucketts `brand’, a marketing strategy meant to build product loyalty. The company stepped up their recruitment of children whose smaller  fingers could handle the fragile sticks of packed tobacco.  They were often hired as assistants and paid directly by skilled male workers  to  strip the leaf from stems.                  

In 1930, Guelph based Imperial Tobacco, which were responsible for the C- 55, C-56 and C- 57 iconic hockey card sets in the early 1910’s bought out Tucketts.  The Hamilton factory closed in 1966 and was demolished a few years later to make way for an apartment building.                 

It is not known exactly where the cigarette cards were researched, designed and printed on the Tucketts complex. It could have been in the advertising department in a remote corner of the factory building itself. It could have been in any number of out buildings, including Westlawn, former home of Colin Ferrie, the first mayor of Hamilton which was acquired by Tucketts in 1883. Before its demolition in 1957, the stately home which also served as a barracks was used as a paint shop and general storage.   

Decades earlier, one of the most important houses ever erected in Hamilton may have served a more dignified function, possibly even serving as head office of the Hamilton Tobacco Corporation. Although advertisements,  store insert signs, envelop with company letter head as well as the cigarette packages themselves  were probably all designed and printed somewhere in the Tucketts complex, the actual printing of the cigarette cards could have been contracted out.  

Advertising notices for Champs cigarettes was sent out clear across the country as this ad from The Province, a Vancouver newspaper shows. In Ottawa The Citizen had a regular feature on players from the C-144 set.             

Ostensibly meant  to protect the thin cigarette in their  flimsy  little paper boxes, that lacked the foil covering and tight seals of modern cigarette packages, cigarette cards were at first nothing more than blank backed business `trade’ cards.  But soon colorful images of burlesque stars, polo and cricket players with fancy geometric designs and tidbit of information on back started to appear There were even some from a sport, barely a couple decades, also played with a stick of wood on a grassy field.                          

The first generation of cigarette trading cards  were as often as not discarded by the typical adult male smoker as soon as the package was opened. Children who worked closely with adults would often pick them up lying in gutters or pull them out of  garbage cans. They came to be the first to treasure the rectangular pieces of thin cardboard.  But cigarette cards also found their way into special albums, which in an era of picture less newspapers and magazines with small and dense text,  became many working class families way of knowing about current events. The albums were also an encyclopedia of sorts, gathering together arcane scraps of information about world history, geography, zoology, biology etc .  Allen and Ginter are the best known early American cigarette card manufacturer. Their artfully produced images of early baseball players and Indigenous  leaders command high value in the secondary collecting market today. When Allen and Ginter and other smaller firms, mostly based in Virginia and the Carolinas were organized into the America Tobacco Trust in 1890, the need for creating promotional aids diminished. However when antitrust laws passed by the Theodore Roosevelt presidency began to dismantle the trusts, the true golden age of cigarette trading cards began.The T-206 set and its legendary Honus Wagner, still the most valuable trading card ever created dates from this era.                         

Even though shortages of essential materials like metal and paper were not as acute as in World War Two, the US war effort lasting just over a year, the popularity of cigarette cards started to decline by the 1920’s.                        

The  Hamilton Tobacco Corporation C-144 `Champs’ set, only one of four all-hockey cigarette card sets ever produced has other unique features besides those mentioned. The inclusion of an image of the Stanley Cup would not be seen again until the 1969-70 O-Pee-Chee hockey issue and only sporadically thereafter.  `Champs’ and `The Stanley Cup’, were prominently featured on the front and back of the Hamilton Tobacco Products cigarette package.               

The Stanley Cup card, #59 may have been printed as a filler since several players are missing that were apparently meant to be included in the set. The text on the back of the card reads- “Pictures of  Stewart ,Matz Crotch and Gorman West were not available at the time of going to press. Those who are interested in our hockey contest may substitute  this insert for one or all of these players”.             

`Champs’ truly was that, featuring among others, Clarence O’ Day in a Toronto St. Patrick’s uniform. Nicknamed `Hap’ because of his jocularity, Day was the first captain of the newly named Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1927-28 season and later paired up with King Clancy to make a formidable duo on defense. It is little known fact that Day played several years for the Hamilton Tigers Senior A team in the early 1920’s. In all there are twelve St. Patrick’s players in the Champs set.           

Hamilton born `Babe’ Cecil Dye who played one game for the Tigers in their inaugural season is part of the Champs  set.  Card #1 is Jock(Jack) Adams who would found the Detroit Redwings franchise in a couple of years.  Burgeoning Montreal Canadian star Howie Morentz who was named the greatest hockey player of the first half of the 20th century is in the Champs set.  #60, the last card ’ belongs to   Montreal goalie George Vezina who would die of tuberculosis in two years.               

The Champs set has eleven players from Hamilton Tigers which won the NHL league championship in 1924-25. Among these are team Captain Shorty (Thomas) Green who would lead the team in their famous strike against NHL Governor Frank Calder at the end of the regular season that year. The Tigers were asking for $200 per player for the extra six games that were not covered in the twenty- four game contract for the 1924-25 season.                

Calder denied their demands and the Tigers forfeited their participation in the playoffs that  spring. Next year, would find most the Hamilton roster playing for mobster Bill Dwyer’s New York Americans in the new Madison Square Garden.  The `Americs’ preceded Tex Rickard’s `Rangers’ by two years as New York’s first professional hockey team.       

Shorty Green who scored the first goal in the `Gardens’ is also found in the three other 1924-25 sets mentioned. That gave him four cards in one year It would take until the junk wax era of the early 1990’s for hockey players to find themselves on so many different cards!                    

Shorty’s brother Redvers, nicknamed `Red’ is in the Champs set as is Mickey Roach, a top five scorer in the 1922-23 season. Billy Burch, winner of the 1924-25 Hart Trophy winner, the second time it was awarded is the fourth Tiger star in the set. Burch scored the first New York American goal and was with them until the 1931-32 season.Journeymen players Ken Randall, Louis Langlois, Robert Mckinnon,  Jesse Spring, Louis Berlinquette, Goldie Prodger, Edmond Bouchard and goalie Vernon Forbes are all part of the Champ’s collation.               

The design department at Tucketts aka Hamilton Tobacco Corporation must have wanted to include as many players from the hometown team as possible. Inaugural Tiger and Hamilton resident Leo Reise was not in the Champs set since he had been moved to Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League(WHL) in the middle of the 1923-24 season.        The basic lightly sepia toned design and slightly blurred photos of the Champs set betray a less complicated and expensive printing process than the three Imperial Tobacco all-hockey sets. Bavarian  limestone printing blocks combined with an elaborate and costly printing technique called chromolithography produced the brilliant colors of the C-55, C- 56 and C-57 sets. A simpler printing technique was used for the Champs set.           

The next chapter in our story starts with the Shelby Gum Company in Shelby, a mid-sized town in North Central Ohio. In 1924, The Shelby Gum Company produced and marketed `Blo-Bubble’ the first commercially viable bubblegum in the world. This inflatable chewing gum would become the crucible for the next major development in the trading card universe.               

Two states to the east of Ohio, Walter Diemer, an accountant with Fleer Gum Works, a confectionary company founded in Philadelphia 1855 was experimenting in that firm’s laboratory and also came up with a recipe for bubble gum in 1928. In 1906 Fleer had created an inflatable chewing gum called `Blibber Bubble’ but it proved to be too brittle, breaking into little pieces when it was taken out of the package.            

The new gum `Dubble Bubble’ could create up to a six inch diameter balloon-like sphere and was the first commercially successful bubble gum. The gum was  pink and remains so today for the most part because it apparently was the only food coloring available when first formulated at the Fleer plant.            

Small waxy comic strips called Fleer Funnies was packaged with the original `Dubble Bubble’. Later characters like `Dub and Bud’ and `Pud’ would personify the tasty gum product which vied with Topps Bazooka as the most popular bubble gum in the world.           Enos Goudey was the first person to think of inserting images of sporting figures, Indigenous leaders  and movie stars in wrapped packages of bubble gum that retailed for one cent. It was no wonder Goudey, originally a native of Nova Scotia was called King of the Penny Gum Card.              

In the beginning trading cards were only included as a bonus a secondary add on. It was not  until the 1950’s that the pieces of cardboard became more important than the gum, although the later continued to inserted, at least in baseball issues until 1990.         

The shiny wax paper wrapper that housed the gum and cards now became a focal point, with the four artfully folded in edges relaying tantalizing information on various promotions and mail in redemptions. A kaleidoscope  of colors and intricate designs covered every part of some of the wrappers. Unlike cigarette cards of old, literally dozens of small companies entered the new penny gum market, including one in Hamilton. The Hamilton Chewing Gum Company wrappers were orderly and stand forward affairs compared to the riotous designs to some penny gum wrappers from the 1930’s.         

The cigarette package of old was never a billboard for selling the product within, although the Champs brand with the Stanley Cup proudly printed on the back may be considered an exception.  The sizing of the new bubble gum trading card would change now,  although it would not be standardized until decades later. A more square looking card was a marked difference from the vertical rectangular configuration of cigarette cards. Thicker card board stock was also used.           

1933 was an important year for Canada and the city of Hamilton. There was a return to consumer confidence with increased spending in the retail sector. Christ the King Cathedral in the west end of the city was consecrated in 1933. King George V allowed the city to use the penultimate regal prerogative in the naming of the new Royal Botanical Garden.         

1933  was the second year that Toe (Hector) Blake, future Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner and long time Montreal Canadian coach played for the Hamilton’s Senior A Tigers team. Blake was instrumental in their march to the Allan Cup championship in the spring of 1934. 1933-34 was year Hamilton saw its first Junior A hockey team come into existence.          Like the loonie in Canada today, the penny, also called the red cent (the copper content of this now moribund coin being much higher then), was the base purchasing currency in 1933. A kid thought himself rich if he or she had a few in their pocket. Panhandlers probably considered it a good day, if they pulled in a  dozen or so at the day of the day.           

Bobby Burrell, author of several hockey memorabilia guides believes that an enterprising salesmen made the rounds of Canadian gum and candy makers in the early 1930’s. Toting no doubt, samples of new Goudey’s brilliantly colored Indian and Big League baseball issues, this person convinced at least three  Canadian gum companies to put out  a hockey only product for the upcoming 1933-34 NHL season. Canadian Chewing Gum’s V- 252, O- Pee- Chee’s  V-304A and V-304B , Ice Kings’s V-357  and finally Hamilton Chewing Gum’s V-288 sets all harken from 1933-34.                  

The Hamilton Chewing Gum Company V-288 hockey set consists of twenty one skip numbered card  2 ⅜  inches by 2 ¾ inch, ending with card #49. The gaps in sequencing doesn’t reflect well on   the Hamilton Chewing Gum Company, since collectors, usually young boys would be compelled to shell more of their hard earned coppers to acquire the entire set. They would buy package after package of the one cent gum and have eight  of #2 or  ten  of #29. But no #4 or #10!  Does this strike any of you collectors and set builders  as familiar?                            

There is speculation that individual contracts with players who had been assigned specific numbers in the set  could not be negotiated and so the slot was left unfilled. The 21  cards were available in four different colored background, green, blue, orange and beige. A master set consisting of eight four total card could command a six digit dollar figure in the secondary collecting market if it ever became available.              

The short one sentence description of the hockey player pictured on front is in English and French on back.  Strangely the French is above the English. Just like C-144’s hometown plug , Hamilton Chewing Gum Ltd. is proudly stated on the bottom of the V-288.        

Shelby Gum founder John J. Wilsdon’s son John F., who had just graduated from Ohio State University, started the Hamilton Chewing Gum Company in 1930. It made the first  bubble gum in Canada.  

According to Andrea Wilsdon, the great granddaughter of John J., the family wanted to break into the Canadian market and narrowed their choices to Toronto, Montreal or Hamilton. Although the two gum companies shared a common origin they operated as independent entities.                

Hamilton Chewing Gum had office and factory space on the third floor at 52 John St. North. In the summer, the day-time temperatures in the plant would soar, the new wrapping machines would ‘gum up’ and production would nosedive. During these hot spells, Mr. Wilsdon would work through the night keeping the machines running.             

In the beginning there were no wrapping machines, it was all done by hand. Since the wrappers were paid piecemeal, the worker’s fingers moved like grease lightning. A completed box held 100 wrapped cards and each woman was paid 10 cents per box. The women were very fast and could complete between eight to ten boxes per hour.              

52 John St North  was part of the immense Hamilton Stove and Heater Company complex. Taking up an entire block bounded by John, King William, Catherine and Rebecca streets, the oldest structure in downtown Hamilton may very well exist here.            

In this photo we can see what is probably the Hamilton Gum Company sandwiched between J.H. French Printers and Bookbinders and Victoria Leather and Cap. A dark delivery van parked in front of the  illegible black sign with white lettering probably belonged to the Hamilton Chewing Gum Company.                                        

There are no direct Hamilton hockey related cards in the  Hamilton Chewing Gum hockey set.  However The V-288 issue is the only set of the day showing the Detroit Falcons (immediate forerunner of the Red Wings) jersey, lovingly worn by star Larry Aurie, Next year Jack Adams would rename them with what he felt was a more kinetic nickname.  To this day, the Red Wings refuse to retire Aurie’s #6, because he is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.          

1946-47 Detroit center and winner of the 1939-40  Hart Trophy winner Ebbie Goodfellow is in the Hamilton Gum set. Ace Bailey, whose playing career would end in a tragic accident in 1934 occupies slot #11. Lorne Chabot who played for the New York Americans is card #30. This is the closest  connection to Hamilton, although the Americans had been in New York for nine years.       

Charlie Conacher Toronto Maple Leaf captain occupies the last position and is one of the most valuable cards in the Hamilton Chewing Gum set when it is found in good condition. Children’s penchant for using tight elastic bands to carry their collection around or store, a tradition which continued into the 1970’s when the shoe box came into vogue often caused the first and last cards to be damaged.         

Hamilton Gum also produced gum only products like `Bubs’, `Penny Kiss Gum’ and `Gumps Big Bubble’.It is unknown if there were comic strips inserted like Fleer’s `Dubble Bubble’ or Topp’s `Bazooka’.          

With the rationing of sugar and other essential ingredients during World War Two, the Hamilton Chewing Gum Company was had difficulty making ends met in the downtown location . But post war prosperity benefited  Hamilton Gum and in 1949,  they moved to an air conditioned plant at  455 Cumberland, just down the street from the Life Savers plant, their prime competition for the confectionary trade in the city. The  new locale near Gage Ave, opposite Mercury Mills knitting mill was near  to the THB/CP railway line.            

Just imagine the pent-up demand for sweets. Kids who hadn’t seen a stick of gum in years must have went wild!. Just like their Dads with the new post war car models. Hamilton Gum had the post war market all to themselves for several years until other firms moved in to cut into business. John F. Wilsdon tried to stay ahead of the competition by introducing premiums like towels and tumblers for store keepers and of course collecting cards for the kids. But the writing was on the wall.  In 1962 Hamilton Chewing Gum was sold to Fleer Limited.         

More research is needed to uncover the full story of how both the Hamilton Tobacco Products C-144 and Hamilton Chewing Gum Company V-288 hockey card sets came into existence. But it is clear both were intended to capitalize on the popularity of amateur and professional hockey in the large urban center.  The City of Hamilton, an industrial juggernaut for over a century can add one more item to its long list of manufactured consumer products.

Joachim Brouwer is a Hamilton heritage buff and has served on the executive of the Hamilton Mountain Heritage Society(HMHS). He has been published in among other places Branchline, Canadian Rail, Niagara Escarpment News and the Waterloo Historical Society Annual Journal as well The Hamilton Spectator . He also collects hockey, baseball and non-sport trading cards