About the Collection: A History Of The Cards In The Russell Collection
The Richard B. Russell, Jr. collection contains over one thousand baseball cards produced by the American Tobacco Company during the years 1909-1911, the height of the so-called dead-ball era. The majority of the cards come from the T-206 "White Border" set, the largest tobacco card set of the early 20th century and the one containing some of the most prized cards in the collecting world. All of the cards were collected by the aspiring "base ballist" Dick Russell beginning in 1909. The cards were found among his other juvenilia when additional materials came to the library in 1983.
The first baseball cards manufactured for mass distribution were produced by competing tobacco companies in the 1880s. The first tobacco cards were issued by Goodwin & Co. of New York City in 1887. These were followed shortly by cards produced by other manufacturers (Old Judge, Allen & Ginter, and Mayo Cut Plug among them). The cards were used to advertise several different types of tobacco products, with particular emphasis placed on boosting cigarette sales. Most male smokers at this time enjoyed cigars or pipe tobacco; cigarettes were considered effeminate. By using images that would appeal to male consumers-female actresses and music hall performers, boxers and baseball players-tobacco companies discovered that their card inserts proved an effective form of advertising. This practice was so successful that cards were included with other products such as candy and gum. The first baseball cards featured black-and-white studio "action" photographs of ballplayers simply glued to stiff cardboard backings. Other sets featured full-color lithographs of the game's top stars. This first era of baseball card production ended in the 1890s when James Buchanan "Buck" Duke created the American Tobacco Company monopoly by buying out his competitors. With no competition, there was no longer a need to create new card issues, and baseball card production temporarily ended.
The Golden Era of baseball card production began in 1909 with the American Tobacco Company's release of the T-206 set, easily the largest mass-produced tobacco card set up to this time. Threatened by increasing sales of Turkish tobacco, and faced with monopoly-busting actions by the U.S. government, Duke's American Tobacco Company sought to enhance sales of domestic tobacco through an aggressive marketing campaign. The 525 cards and variants of the small format (1 1/2" x 2 5/8") 1909-1911 T-206 or "White Border" set form one of the most stylistically inventive and popular card issues of all time. These cards all feature advertisements for a variety of tobacco products made by Duke's monopoly, with one notable exception: a very rare issue of a Ty Cobb portrait with the slogan "Ty Cobb, King of the Smoking Tobacco World" on the reverse. Other scarce issues from this set include the famous Honus Wagner card, an Eddie Plank issue, and an array of variants and misprints, all of which make it nearly impossible for collectors to complete the set. The Russell collection contains 497 different cards and variants from the T-206 set, an amazing accomplishment for a juvenile collector and a testament to the tenacity of the young Russell.
Other popular sets produced by the American Tobacco Company during this period include the T-205 "Gold Border" issue, a smaller quantity set featuring beautiful full-color player portraits outlined in gold trim, and the T-210 "Red Border" series, a large set of minor league players depicted in black-and-white photographs. Due to the numerous regional issues of the latter series, complete collections of this set are difficult to amass. The Russell collection contains numerous cards from each of these sets.
Turkish cigarette companies also created cards to sell their product, and in the process introduced some innovative designs and artwork. One notable set, the Turkey Red (T-3) Cabinet cards, are handsomely painted large format (8" x 5 3/4") cards that were available through the mail only as premiums. The Russell collection includes four of these unusual cards.
In addition to baseball cards, other subjects depicted in the Russell collection include actresses, boxers, flags of the world, and animals.
This era of tobacco card production came to an abrupt end with the beginning of World War I. Imported tobacco products dried up when Turkey allied itself with Germany, and with its main competition gone, the American Tobacco Company halted production of baseball cards. Baseball cards would hereafter be marketed to a juvenile audience by candy and gum companies.