As a kid growing up in the 1950s, the most enjoyment derived from attending school was the lunch break and the ringing of the departure bell at 3 p.m. That 3 p.m. bell meant it was time to visit the local candy store, where it seemed almost daily that a new picture card set was displayed on the top of the counter.
In the 1950s, packs of picture cards were sold for a penny, nickel and a dime – gum was included. Other cards sets were issued on food product packaging, on the end of loaves of bread packages, cereal boxes and ice cream lids. Such incentives enticed any kid sent to the store to purchase a certain brand of bread. In my neighbourhood of Elizabeth, New Jersey, it was Tip-Top, Bond, or Silvercup. Whichever bread had picture cards on the end flap was the one that sold the best – at least as long as the kids were choosing. Silvercup was famous for the large neon sign above its bakery in Queens, New York. The building has appeared in many movies as it can be seen from the Queensborough Bridge. On one of my school trips to New York City, we toured the plant and at the end each kid was given a miniature loaf of Silvercup bread.
Sports picture cards have always had a larger collector following than the non-sport cards. But, in the past 20 years more collectors have discovered the wide range of non-sport cards available to collect. Recent estimates put the number of sets issued since the late 1800s in the area of 200,000, and newly undiscovered cards appear on a regular basis. The first non-sports cards were issued in the 1800s by the Allen & Ginter Company. The first sets were issued in tobacco packages. Starting in the 1920s, cards moved from tobacco products into the area of ice cream and candy, advertising for various products and then gum came onto the scene. The story of how gum was developed and became such a large selling product is a story in itself. There have been articles written on which company manufactured the best tasting chewing gum.
The marketing of non-sport cards in beautiful packages with fantastic artwork became a major marketing tool. To increase the market, gum was added to the package. The early 1920s sets focused on subjects like movie stars and World War I. In some cases, cards were issued in long strips and could be purchased at the seashore or amusement park.
The Golden Age of non-sport picture cards began about 1932. The three main picture card gum companies in the 1930s were located in Massachusetts: Goudey Gum, National Chicle Company and the Gum Company. Goudey issued such sets as Pirates, Boy Scouts, Soldier Boys. National Chicle Company released Tom Mix booklets, Skybirds and Dare Devils. In the late 1930s, the Gum Company entered the market. Their first set was entitled G Men. The movies, magazines and newsreels at that time were fixated on the major criminal figures and the G Men that captured or killed them. The G Men were members of J. Edgar Hoovers new FBI. Their main goal was to track down the men and women on the newly developed Ten Most Wanted List. As a kid, whenever I had to go to the post office my first stop was to look at the FBI “Wanted” posters hanging on the hook. One of the G Men, Melvin Purvis, received a tip from the “lady in red” that John Dillinger would be in Chicago at the Biograph movie theatre. The G Men waited and when he refused to surrender Purvis shot Dillinger dead. Three months later, he killed Pretty Boy Floyd in a shootout. He arrested more public enemies than any FBI agent. Purvis left the FBI and became an author, radio and movie star. There are collectors who search for his G Men badges, toy machine gun and even a G Men passport. Almost every kid wanted to be G Man and have exciting adventures.
In 1938, Gum issued a set which would become the most famous series of picture cards for their time. Today at auction, they bring the highest prices. The Horrors of War set were colour scenes of the horrors of the new wars which were taking place, like the Japanese invasion of China and the Spanish Civil War. Each individual card was a graphic depiction of a battle scene or in some cases a scene of civilians being killed by soldiers. There were 240 cards in total and at a recent auction the set sold for a record $56,869.12 Life magazine did a two-page spread on the card set and its graphic depiction of the events unfolding prior to the start of the Second World War. Continuing in the same vein, Gum followed Horrors of War with War News Pictures, World in Arms and in 1940 and 1941 another two popular sets, the Lone Ranger and Superman were introduced.
The majority of early sets of non-sports picture cards, and into the ‘50s, were not photographs, but, like their baseball counterparts, were beautiful paintings of the scenes or characters. From time to time, the beautiful artwork shows up for sale. It seems the Topps Company in Brooklyn, New York, would just throw the artwork into the company dumpster when the printing was finished. I did not live near the plant otherwise it might have been my cousin and I doing the dumpster-diving. We did live near the Park Plastics Company and did dumpster-dive after business hours for space water guns and other toy products the company made.
In Canada, the O-Pee-Chee Company, founded in 1911 as a candy company, moved into the card business in the 1930s. The majority of its sets then and later would be baseball and hockey, but in the 1930s it issued a Mickey Mouse set and Fighting Forces when Canada entered World War II. After World War II, the company focused on hockey picture cards with a piece of gum. The majority of their other cards were printed by license from the Topps Company of New York City. Canadian-themed cards like their 1970s set of the History of the RCMP were also printed occasionally.
After World War II, several other major companies moved in to take over the non-sport and sport picture card market. Topps, Bowman, Fleer and a few others. The two main competitors were Topps and Bowman. In the early 1950s, Topps issued a large 200-card set entitled Wings. It featured the new aircraft and helicopters of the Korean War period. Not to be outdone, Bowman printed a set of U.S, Naval Victories, which included a picture card of Jack Kennedy and his famous PT 109 of wartime fame. Another set was Powers For Peace, which featured America’s many new weapons systems. My favourite one depicts troops marching forward into a nuclear explosion. A lawsuit developed between Topps and Bowman over what was extra inside the picture card pack. It was the gum issue which brought both companies to court. Bowman had included a piece of gum in its non-sport and baseball cards. Topps claimed that legally they were the only company that could place a slab of that wonderful pink gum in a package. Topps won out and eventually purchased Bowman.
With the Baby Boom underway, the shops were filled with a wide variety of sets of cards. Many were focused on teaching history to young kids, like The History of the U.S. Marine Corps., and Flags of the World. It is fascinating to sit down and look at the world’s flags in 2016 and note how many of the countries and their flags have changed. There was Fight the Red Menace that focused on the Korean War and the start of the Cold War. My favourite cards were from the Scoops set. The front of the card featured an historical event – Panama Canal Opened, Babe Ruth Sets Record, Pony Express Starts, how about Jessie Owens racing a horse. On the back was the front page from a newspaper that explained the event in more detail and also had the other stories that appeared on the front page that day.
The 1950s were the decade of early space satellites and one of the most beautiful and expensive sets to collect is the Bowman Jets, Rockets and Spaceman. Issued in 1951, the set has fantastic artwork of scenes of the future in space. The cards are valuable and there is a mystery concerning missing numbered cards in the set. One theory is the original printing prints were destroyed by accident and the cards never issued. It’s another of the mysteries that makes collecting so much fun. Imagine finding a box full of the missing cards at a yard sale or second hand store.
Starting in the early 1960s, non-sport picture card companies replaced the more expensive art work of the cards with photos from the actual event or from the other major area television program. If you can think of a television program in any time period, a picture card set has been issued. You can find sets for Lost in Space, The Man From UNCLE, Dukes of Hazzard, Gunsmoke, Davy Crockett, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, King Kong, Planet of the Apes – the movie and television show. Movies have also been represented: Star Wars and its various sequels, Superman, ET, Close Encounters, Jaws 2, Smokey and the Bandit and so many others. The number of sets are endless and to make it even more interesting collectors search out the unopened packs of cards, wrappers and even the counter display boxes. Some rare counter boxes have brought several thousand dollars at auctions. I recently purchased a full 36-pack box of Jaws two-packs.
The other major sub area of collecting is searching for the bread end labels. Over the years, bread companies have featured airplanes, Disney characters, the Cisco Kid, Hollywood movie stars, Ramar of the Jungle, Howdy Doody, Hopalong Cassidy, Space Patrol, Star Trek, Night Rider, Tarzan in 3D. Some collectors search the boxes that feature a picture card on the box front or back and inside there was a special toy and a piece of gum. One sought after set issued in the 1980s is a series of 12 different boxes with scenes from the early Flash Gordon comic strip. There is a set for every collector. Some are easy and inexpensive to find, others are rare and more difficult to locate. Like almost every collectible, the non-sport picture cards is a snapshot of a period in time. Early cards featured radio and movies. After World War II it became television and movies.Happy hunting and don’t try to chew the old gum.
Note: For more information, here is a list of several useful publications.
The Wrapper in Illinois has been publishing stories and buy and sell lists since 1978. Issue #280 had the newly discovered set of unknown Davy Crockett cards issued by Ogilvie Flour Mills of Winnipeg. A full set appeared to have 25 cards. A second Canadian set was issued for the Adventures of Radisson Television Show. When you believe everything must be known about non-sports cards, a new issue of the Wrapper arrives to deliver a story on a newly discovered set. A new issue comes out about every 45 days.
Non-Sports Update Magazine in Philadelphia, which has recently become part of the Beckett Publishing Company, publishes six times a year. On the Beckett website is the ad for the Non-Sports Almanac which has listings for 200,000 different card sets.
1 – 1978 display box filled with 36 packs of cards with scenes from the Jaws 2 movie
2 – The album for the Heinz issued Famous Air Pilots set of 25 cards
3 – 1923 American Caramel Co.’s 120-card movie stars set
4 – 1920s Metropolitan Opera card with Leo Slezak, father of actor Walter Slezak