It's on the Cards - The History of Cigarette Cards and Trade Cards

When you mention cigarette cards, most people think of cricketers, footballers and film stars of the1930s. This was the heyday of cigarette card issues when virtually every packet contained a little picture and the major companies like Wills and Players had their own studios and artists devoted entirely to the production of cigarette cards. It was big business, and massive print-runs often ran into hundreds of millions for each series.

That's why there are still lots of them around today - sets can still be bought for around £15 upwards, which is a major reason for their popularity for those of us wishing to indulge in nostalgia for Hollywood legends, sporting heroes, military hardware, famous trains and graceful ocean liners from a golden age.

In The Beginning

In fact the hobby goes back to the 1890s, to a time when cigarettes were wrapped in paper packets. Manufacturers began inserting pieces of card to protect the contents, quickly realising that these would be useful for advertising their products. Soon these were followed by pictorial sequences which would build up in to sets. The object was to encourage repeat purchases and establish brand loyalty, and the subjects chosen were those most likely to appeal to the predominantly male customer base. Beautiful young women, sportsmen and soldiers dominated the earliest series, followed by ever more diverse topics in the early 20th century as companies competed for trade by offering something new.

Remember this was before the days of cinema, radio or TV let alone the modern technological wonders we now take for granted. Newspapers carried few illustrations, and living standards were much lower. For most smokers, therefore, the cards they collected from their packets were their window on the world, serving to educate, excite or amuse - they were colourful, informative and free!

Many of these early cards were from firms whose names would mean nothing to a non-collector, little companies which went out of business or were swallowed up by the big boys before World War 1. And it is these cards, few of which have survived, which are often the most valuable.

The 1920s and 1930s

The 1920s and 1930s are generally regarded as the golden age of cards. Competition was fierce and rival firms were constantly looking for something different to stand out from the crowd. Players and Wills went in for adhesive backed cards and offered special albums to stick them in. So many were produced that there are still loads around today, and they fetch only a few pounds. Another idea was cards that made up into a sectional picture of a work of art, a map or an historic event like the 1937 Coronation Procession. Some makers developed cards with push-out sections which could be made into models, whilst others came out with sequences of silk embroidered flowers, cards in miniature frames, bronze plaques, metal charms to hand on a bracelet -even little gramophone records which could actually be played!

Cards at War

During World War I many patriotic collections were issued - Recruiting Posters, Infantry Training, Modern War Weapons, Military Motors, Allied Army Leaders, Britain's Part in The War and so on. All were subject to Government scrutiny to ensure no secrets reached the enemy, and "passed for publication by the Press Bureau" is printed on many of these cards. In the run-up to World War II, out came cards demonstrating the nation's apparent military strength and preparedness for action - Britain's Defences, the R.A.F. at Work and Life in the Royal Navy to name a few. Aircraft of the R.A.F cards showed our latest fighters, the Spitfire and Hurricane ("the performance of this machine is an official secret" we are warned). It is rumoured that German agents were buying up Player's 1939 British Naval Craft in London to send back to U-Boat crews. Meanwhile the authorities sponsored a series of Air Raid Precautions "cigarette cards of national importance", endorsed by Home Secretary Samuel Hoare, with useful hints on how to put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb. How effective or otherwise these proved in the blitz we shall never know, but they raised public awareness.

The Cards That Never Were

Britain's biggest maker, W.D. & H. O. Wills of Bristol prepared a series of 50 cards to celebrate Wellington's victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, but when the date for issue came up in 1915 their release was cancelled so as not to offend the French who were our allies fighting the Germans. And in a series of Musical Celebrities all the German subjects were withdrawn and substituted by lesser-known individuals from other nationalities. Another Wills' casualty was a series of 50 cards prepared to mark the coronation of King Edward VIII, Edward's abdication in 1936 put paid to this and the cards were destroyed - all except, that is, for a handful of sets presented to the firm's directors and top management.

A New Dawn

Paper shortages halted card production in 1940. Cigarette cards would never be issued on the same scale as before the war, but even so there have been quite a few over the years, starting with the blue and white pictures of film star and footballers printed in the sliding trays in Turf Cigarettes, and progressing to many series of popular cards in packets of Tom Thumb, Doncella and Grandee Cigars. Recent anti-smoking legislation has ended any hope of new cards with tobacco products, but we will continue to welcome new trade card issues.

Trade Cards, or "trading cards" as they are often called, are picture cards issued with non tobacco products and they have a distinguished history which pre-dates even the earliest cigarette cards. On the continent of Europe, one of the first to recognise the sales potential of cards was the Liebig Meat Extract Company which over a period of 120 years from 1872 onwards issued no fewer than 1,800 different series. In the 1920s and '30s firms like chocolate makers Frys and Cadburys, tea companies such as Typhoo, periodical publishers etc. mimicked their tobacco counterparts by producing a regular flow of picture cards. But it was in the post-war environment that trade cards really came into their own, filling the gap left by the demise of cigarette cards. From the 1950s onwards came a flood of 'trade' cards issued with tea, confectionery, biscuits, cereals, ice cream, and so on. Among them were companies such as A & B C Gum, Bassetts and Brooke Bond who regularly released one set after another year after year. I expect many of you will remember collecting them - and really there has been a notable trend for this age group to begin collecting them again which can be satisfyingly inexpensive with some Brooke Bond cards from the 1960s and 70s priced at around £4 or £5 for a mint set.

Today's Hobby

Remember The Saint, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Doctor Who? They all have huge followings and collectors are snapping up new sets as they come onto the market. The same goes for Star Trek, Buffy, Disney, Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. Cult TV series and blockbuster movies are sure to be pictured on cards. That goes for football too. There are hundreds of different sets to chose from, some going back to the days of Matthews, Finney and Lofthouse, others bringing us right up-to-date with the latest Premiership players and stars like Lampard and Rooney.

The thing is, card collecting is a living hobby with many new series being produced each year attracting a new generation of collectors. Whatever your age or interests, you're going to be pleasantly surprised by what cards can offer. Collecting cards has come a long way since its pre-war image and people from all walks of life are now keen collectors.


One of the biggest suppliers is the London Cigarette Card Company, founded in 1927. They have an astonishing 50 million cards in stock and they publish the hobby's essential reference catalogue with prices for over 16,700 different series on every subject imaginable. The 2019 edition of The Cigarette and Trade Card Catalogue (click here) priced at £12.50 (464 pages) is widely regarded as the definitive guide to collecting. They also have a Card Collectors Club (click here) from £20 a year for the membership. They also publish a monthly magazine called 'Card Collectors News', available by post, at £2.25 each (click here) or free to club members (published non-stop since 1933) which keeps everyone up-to-date with news about the latest card issues, stories and features.

As you might have guessed from the name, the London Cigarette Card Company began life in the Capital, but moved to its present headquarters in Somerset in the 1970s. Cards can be ordered by post, telephone, fax or e-mail and through this website.

For further information contact The London Cigarette Card Company Ltd, Sutton Road, Somerton, Somerset TA11 6QP, telephone 01458 273452, e-mail