When a collector says that they don’t make baseball cards like they used to they’re saying more than they likely realize. This article shows the unique antiquated methods by which 1800s baseball cards were printed, and how early baseball cards, fine art and photography overlap.
Printed baseball cards as original artworks
Today, we take for granted the photorealistic images printed on and in everything from baseball cards to calendars to posters to magazines. We can even make our own, using our digital cameras, scanners and phones and home computer printers. As many know, this ‘halftone photomechanical’ printing method translates the image, whether it is of a photo for a 1975 Topps card or a painting for 1953 Topps, into a fine minute dot pattern. You can see the dot pattern under strong magnification, and it is this fine pattern that make the images look realistic from normal eye distance.
However, in the centuries old history of printing this halftone reproduction of photographic images is relatively modern. It was invented in the 1870s, but not used commercially until the turn of the 20th century. Before then, photorealistic images in ink and printing press prints were not possible. If you look at the pictures in 1800s newspapers, magazines and books, the pictures are often attractive but resemble hand drawn sketches. If you examine them under magnification you will see that they are made up of solid lines and marks.
In the fine arts, antiques and antiquities world, “handmade prints” or “original prints” are prints where the graphics were made directly onto the printing plate by the artist or craftsman by hand or handheld tools. This is the way Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer and modern artists such as Picasso, Renoir and Chagall made their original prints that hang on museum walls. Handmade prints are considered the highest form of printmaking, and are considered as original of artworks as paintings and sculptures.
This handmade way is also the way early baseball cards and related baseball ephemera (posters, tobacco albums advertising signs, Spalding and Reach guide illustrations, etc) were made. With handmade lithography, such as with the 1880s Allen & Ginters and many trade cards, the graphics were made onto the printing stone by brush, pens and special handheld tools. These lithographs resemble little paintings, even up close, and are prized by collectors for their beauty and brilliant colors. With woodcut, woodengraving and intaglio (engraving, etching) prints, such as with the Harper’s Woodcuts, 1885 Red Sox Tobacco cards and numerous trade cards. the graphics were cut or carved into wood blocks or metal plates. This was a long and laborious processes and publishers and card issuers employed professional artists and craftsmen.
So when you own an 1800s Allen & Ginter or Goodwin Champions cigarette card, baseball trade card, advertising sign or Harper’s Woodcut, realize that you own a handmade artwork that pre-dates modern reproduction methods and it is as original as the Rembrandt or Picasso that hangs in the Louvre.
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1800s real photo cards
Beyond the ink-and-printing press trading cards, the other 1800s baseball cards are actual photographs. This includes the 1880s Old Judges, Gypsy Queens, Peck & Sniders, Lone Jacks, Newsboy Cabinets and other cards with photorealistic images.
Again, this was before printing presses could reproduce photorealistic images. The only way baseball card manufacturers could produce cards with photorealistic images of the players was to issue actual photographs.
Real photo images are created via the chemical interaction of sunlight and photochemicals, so there is no printed dot or ink pattern even under the microscope. This is part of the way these baseball cards are authenticated. If an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen image has a dot pattern, you know that it is a reprint.
These photo cards were made with an early photographic process called albumen. This was the standard paper photographic process of the day and most paper photos of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and such are albumen. As an antique and commercially discontinued process, the following are some of the interesting aspects of the process and baseball cards:
— The albumen photopaper was extremely thin and fragile and would roll up like a cigarette with time, so it had to be pasted to cardboard backing. You will see that the 1800s photocards have cardboard backing and cabinet cards are by definition a photographic print pasted to a larger cardboard backing. As the paper shrank over time (causing the cigarette to roll if unbacked), many N172 Old Judges have a noticeable bow. You will occasionally find “skinned” cards, where the albumen photo was peeled off from the backing. As you would expect, these are graded as poor.
— Albumen means egg whites, and that is what was used to affix the photochemicals to photopaper. Photographic paper needs a clear substance to hold the chemicals to the paper and to allow the images to develop. 1800s photopaper manufacturers owned large chicken farms to produce all that albumen. By the 1900s gelatin had replaced albumen.
— Albumen photos and baseball cards are well known for their old fashioned sepia tones. This was a product of aging, and the images were originally much closer to black-and-white with some purplish tones. You will occasionally find a well preserved example with the original tones.
— Almost all 1800s real photo baseball cards are posed studio images, either portraits or fake action photos. The posed action shots often have painted backdrops, rugs as fake grass on wooden floors and balls hanging from strings. It is sometimes comical. This is all because it was not possible to to make instant
snapshots, much less live game action shots. The subjects had to stay perfectly still or the image would be blurry. In many American Civil War photographs, when the required exposure time needed was even longer, you will often see props and stands behind the standing soldier used to keep him still.
— A rarely used method of adding color dye to the photopaper was invented in the 1880s. Though possible to find blue and yellow albumen photographs, pink was technically the easiest to make and you will see a number of pink Old Judge cards. The down side of this novelty color is that the pink cards are usually underdeveloped.
— Realize that in the 1800s, many people who lived outside of the big cities followed the big teams and stars in the newspapers and magazines but never saw the games, much less the players, in person. Before television, easy travel and magazines with realistic pictures, pulling an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen photographic card from a pack of cigarettes was often a fan’s first time seeing what a star such as King Kelly or Cap Anson really looked like. It was akin to meeting the player in person.
David Cycleback is an internationally known art and artifacts scholar who grew up collecting baseball cards and following the Milwaukee Brewers. He can be emailed at email@example.com