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Monday, 1 February 2016

Cartophilic Concerns

My mother’s grandfather died when she was ten. She remembered his speech being difficult to understand following a series of operations to remove parts of his tongue. Born in the eighteen-seventies, he had smoked from a fairly young age, beginning with a clay pipe and later transferring to cigarettes.

One of his legacies, so I believed, was a box of around fifty complete sets of cigarette cards stored in ten-cigarette packets of the time. There were athletes and sportsmen, plants and animals, military uniforms, battleships, film stars, garden flowers – together they made what seemed like a complete encyclopaedia. Who was it who observed that children miss out on so much knowledge these days by not smoking?

As I so obviously enjoyed taking out the cards and turning them through, my grandma gave them to me. Very soon, for an eight year-old, I had developed a prodigious expertise in film stars, household hints, flags of the world, ships of the British Navy, and so on, all without realising the peculiarly antiquated nature of my wisdom.

Cigarette Packets 1930s

Inadvisably, I took the cards outside to the yellow shed where I played. They looked pretty impressive lined along a ledge in their packets. There was the bearded Hero sailor inside the Players Navy Cut lifebelt with Nottingham Castle on the back, the red with white oval of Carreras Craven “A” bearing a trade mark in the shape of a black cat, another Carreras brand actually called Black Cat which claimed to be made from choice, unadulterated, matured tobacco, and the earthy brown packet of W. D. & H. O. Wills Capstan Full Strength with its seventeen prize medals on the back. I wondered what the medals were for: Loudest cough? Greatest production of phlegm?

Most of the sets were gum-backed so that, when moistened, they could be stuck into albums. Of course, it was damp in the shed, and within a few weeks the contents of most of the packets had turned into solid cardboard blocks. If it happened now, I would at least try to separate the individual cards with steam or by immersing them in water, but my mother simply threw them out. Because of their associations, I suspect she would rather I had never had them in the first place.

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 cover
King George V Jubilee Album
(see below for the full album)
One set survives in an album: ‘The Reign of King George V 1910-1935’ (Wills, 1935) which was issued to commemorate the Silver Jubilee. Five non-gummed sets survive in their packets: ‘Famous Film Scenes’ (Gallaher, 1935), ‘The Navy’ (Gallaher, 1937), ‘Trains of the World’ (Gallaher, 1937), ‘Garden Hints’ (Wills, 1938) and ‘Aeroplanes’ (Gallaher, 1939). These dates I found on the internet.

The dates give me a problem. All the surviving sets were issued after my great-grandfather had died in 1934, and from what I can remember of them, so were the sets that were thrown out. So there must have been another smoker. Not my grandparents – they were rare non-smokers. So who collected the cards? Did my great-grandfather collect any at all, or is that just a myth?

When sets contain forty-eight or fifty cards, even just one full set demonstrates grim perseverance and dedication. You would have to puff your way through at least five hundred cigarettes per set, assuming one card per packet of ten and enough serious fellow smokers to be able to swap your duplicates. You would have to be at least a regular ten or fifteeen a day man (women being far more sensible) to collect fifty sets.

One person who might fit the profile is my grandmother’s brother. He was secretary and treasurer of the village football and cricket clubs, held similar positions in the local football leagues and involved himself in a great many other clubs and social activities. He would have had plenty of acquaintances eager to swap duplicates. Was he the card-collecting smoker? If so, why did my my mother let me think it was her grandfather rather then her uncle? Was it because he died in a similarly hideous way at the age of only thirty-three? I don’t think she wanted to talk about it at all.

There are questions and questions you wished you’d asked at the time after it’s too late to ask them.

Cigarette Cards: Out Into Space
click to follow link to full set

I do remember collecting sets of cards ourselves when I was little. One was the exciting and mysterious ‘Out Into Space’ set issued from 1956. After that it was wild flowers. But these were tea cards rather than cigarette cards. Even though the larger packets of Brooke Bond PG Tips gave you three or four at a time, you had to drink gallons of the stuff to complete a set.

I still do: four or five pint-mugs per day. Excessive tea drinking can deplete your calcium levels and may not be all that great for prostates, but provided you let it cool a bit, at least it doesn’t give you tongue cancer.

The complete King George V Silver Jubilee album (click to enlarge):
(I especially like number 36)

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 cover Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 frontispiece Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 1-3

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 4-6 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 7-9 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 10-12

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 13-15 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 16-18 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 19-21

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 22-24 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 25-27 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 28-30

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 31-33 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 34-36 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 37-39

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 40-42 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 43-35 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 46-48

Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 49-50 Cigarette Cards: Reign of King George V 1910-1935 back

2 comments:

  1. I love those cards. I've got some 1930s stereographic pictures of dinosaurs - a full set but annoyingly I've somehow lost one. Plus an Edwardian card of Stephen Adams, the composer who Bruce Robinson thinks might have been Jack the Ripper.

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    1. There must have been thousands of sets, beautifully drawn by the legions of professional illustrators then around. Stamps as well. One of the gummed sets we lost was flags of the world. My favourite was the blue and yellow Scandinavian cross on the Swedish Flag.

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