On thinking about what makes a card a card

One of the few editorial positions we have on this blog is a very catholic stance toward what counts as a baseball card. We’ve published posts about photos, toys, games, stamps, coins, etcetera, all of which serve to flesh out and describe the way that we collected cards. We’re not interested in being gatekeepers for what cards are. We’re interested in use and how cards relate to our fandom and interest in the game itself.

All that said, the discussion about what constitutes a card is one that comes up periodically on Twitter or on here.* It’s a fun discussion to have since we all have very different ideas** which in turn impact our collections and interests. I enjoy taking part in these discussions but I really love just watching them since the criteria people bring up have turned out to all over the map.

*Probably also in the Facebook group but as I’m no longer part of that website I’m unable to confirm as much.

**Quite similar to the “what constitutes a complete set” discussion we had earlier on this blog.

We all, of course, have significant agreement on what a card is. But there are so many variables where an item can deviate from being a card™  that I found myself creating a taxonomy of card attributes. Looking at cards with these attributes in mind is something I’ve found helps me understand why my gut reacts to different products the way it does.

This post will explain my thinking and hopefully help other people put words to things their guts have already intuited. Again, this is in no way intended to be a gatekeeping thing. We all have different reactions to which attributes we care about and where on the spectrum something stops being a card. But if the Twitter conversations have taught me anything it’s that being our most interesting conversations are when we’re being positive about our definitions rather than negative about someone else’s.

Material

We’ll start with the obvious and discuss the material of the card. Obviously the expectation is that they be made of cardboard. They are called “cards” after all.

But cards have never been limited to just that. From the silks and blankets in the pre-war era to the plastic, metal, and wood releases of the modern era we’ve always had cards that weren’t made of cardboard. We’ve had stamps, stickers (some made of cloth), rub-offs, rub-downs, and decals as well.

Even in the cardboard/paper realm there’s also a discussion with having about the thickness of the paperstock. We’ve had posts on the blog about cards printed on newsprint and cards which are almost a quarter of an inch thick.

Size

In general tobacco-sized to 3.5″×5″ seems to have a consensus as being a card. But what about 5″×7″ or 8.5″×11″? What about minis and micros that are smaller than tobacco cards? What about posters and pin-ups?

A lot of this comes back to storage concerns and the way many of us use binders and binder pages to organize our collections. But it’s more than that too. For most of us, “card” indicates something from the business card to postcard size and anything beyond that becomes something else. Too small and the card starts to feel insignificant. Too large and it becomes something else—a photo, a poster, a flyer.

Form

This is sort of related to size but refers to non-rectangular items like discs and diecuts but also encompasses folders, booklets, and pop-ups as well as  coins, poker chips, and buttons. Many of these are binderable. Just as many lose what makes them distinct and interesting as soon as they get bindered.

The items which aren’t binderable at all are especially interesting here. Things like the 1957 Swift Meats diecut paper dolls or those Topps 3-D Baseball Stars from the 1980s are clearly intended to be like cards but do not fit into any standard card storage or presentation systems.

Content

The question of what makes a card a card is more than just the physical description of what it’s made of and what shape it is. What it actually depicts is also important. Yes, picture on the front, stats/bio on the back is the expectation. But there are a lot of cards out there which don’t do this.

We’re not just talking about blank backs either although those are definitely relevant to this category. Backs that are advertising, common designs, or just a player name are all part of this. The same goes with fronts that depict a generic player instead of someone specific.

And for my money, all the more-recent relic, autograph, or online cards with backs that are functionally blank fit in here as well. I’ve seen way too many people refer to them as “half a card” to not mention them.

Release

No images for this section because it’s not something that can really be depicted visually. Traditionally, cards are part of a set and are released in either packs or complete sets. Cards that exist by themselves without the context of a set or the lottery of a pack stray into a grey area. This is something that’s really been pushed into new territory with online releases and the way Topps has in many ways optimized its distribution around selling and creating individual items on demand, but the idea of one-off card releases has been around a long time.

There’s also the discussion here about what connotes a set—both in terms of size and how things are numbered. At what point does a release of cards become a “set”? If something is unnumbered or only has a weird alphanumeric code on the back does that mean that it was intended to be collected by itself?

Case Studies

Why do I bother thinking and categorizing different attributes? Because as I watch the discussions it seems that most of us tolerate a certain amount of variance in one or two categories as long as the others remain “standard.” So let’s dig in.

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Let’s start with 1969 Topps Deckle Edge. These are pretty clearly cards but they serve as an example of something that sort of fails one of the categories because the backs are non-existent. But as you move from card size to 5″x7″ to 8″x10″, more and more people switch from treating them as cards to treating them as photos.

Or look at Broders. They’re generally “backless” but they also start to deviate from the expected release method.* They consist of small checklists and were generally not released the same way most cards are. Art cards and customs fit in this area as well. Move up a size in this area and we have things like team photo postcards. Change the paper stock and we end up in Jay Publishing land. At some point things stop being a card for a lot of people**

*There’s also something to be said about the licensing stuff but I’ve not heard anyone claim that Panini or other unlicensed logoless cards aren’t even cards.

**Although we still collect them and cover them on this blog.

The one that’s sort of stumped me in my own collection are the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball stadium giveaways from the early 1990s. Despite being letter-sized and blank-backed, because they’re cardboard and manufactured by Upper Deck they physically feel more like cards than a lot of the posters that Topps has folded up and inserted in packs over the years.

At the same time, since they were distributed via stadium giveaway and do not function as part of a set. They’re also functionally distinct from those late-60s, early-70s posters that were issued in packs and formed part of a distinct set.

But I could go on and on. As stated initially, the point of this post isn’t to provide a definitive answer or even an official opinion. Instead I hope that organizing my thoughts about the different ways we evaluate cardness is helpful to other people as I’ve found it to be for my own thinking.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

8 thoughts on “On thinking about what makes a card a card”

  1. Well said. Will add two other categories to the conversation.

    Physical vs digital is one that’s already hit basketball collectors with NBA Top Shot and has less dramatically hit baseball with Topps BUNT.

    Another one that challenges convention is the companion card genre explored by many of the Topps Project 2020 artists. These cards are essentially baseball card-sized pieces of art inspired by the actual baseball card the same artist created. However, there’s no player, team, logo, etc. Look at the efdot Clemente companion card next to his Topps Project 2020 Clemente and see what you think. Is it a baseball card? Is it a Clemente card? I tend to think yes to both.

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  2. This is a really interesting post.

    One factor that might be added is where different collecting worlds have drawn the dividing line between themselves. The need for a definition of a baseball card isn’t just a way for baseball card collectors to decide what is in their hobby, it also helps people in other hobbies define what isn’t part of theirs.

    Take stamps for example. There are some stamps featuring baseball players which have been issued by post offices for use in mail. Baseball card collectors and stamp collectors both agree that those are the subject of stamp collecting, not baseball card collecting because they very clearly fit the definition of “stamp” within that hobby (which isn’t to say a baseball card collector can’t also collect them, but in doing so he/she is probably aware that they are stepping into a separate collecting sphere from cards).

    But then there are some baseball stamps which weren’t issued by post offices and rather were issued by card makers, like the Topps stamps sets from the 1960s. Even though they are physically basically the same as postage stamps, stamp collectors do not recognize them as part of their hobby because they don’t meet its definition of what constitutes a stamp. So when a baseball card collector starts collecting them, he/she isn’t entering a separate collecting sphere like they are with postage stamps.

    Coins are another example – coin collectors don’t collect Topps baseball coins, but baseball card collectors do despite their physical difference from cards.

    There are similar boundaries in the postcard collecting world too.

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    1. That’s a good point. Especially as it regards hobbies like stamp or coin collecting where there’s a clear “what these are used for” test. I’ve noticed on the baseball card side that the border isn’t as clear cut though. Plenty of us collect stamps which feature baseball subjects (we even have posts about them on this blog) and it wouldn’t surprise me to find some people who added a US Mint Jackie Robinson coin to their card collections.

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      1. Card manufacturers have, of course, muddied, or unmuddied, the waters by taking full stamps and full coins and “embedding” them into cards. I have been (very) slowly building a set of 2008 Topps Presidential Stamps, which are actual postage stamps of U.S. Presidents (or related to them, like the Lincoln-Douglas debate stamp) that have been turned into “card sized” collectibles by placing the stamp between clear plastic and putting a red, white, and blue frame around it. A quick count shows 36 different Presidents (I’m assuming that is all who had been featured on postage stamps up until that point) among the 89 cards, with George Washington having 26 individual “cards” as well as the Washington and Lee University stamp. I admit to having no idea of what the monetary value of the stamp embedded in the card is as a collectible item. The cards are serial numbered to 90 so I treat them like they are cards serial numbered to 90 – I assume Topps didn’t buy 90 copies of some super rare stamp, and I’ve never seen any of the cards sell for hundreds of dollars. There is little connection to baseball as the focus is on the President.

        Similarly, in some products (I know 2011 Topps Heritage had them) there are coins embedded in a similar way. The ties to baseball are closer, as most of those cards have players for whom 1962 is of some significance (birth year, HOF election year for Bob Feller, first year in MLB, etc.) pictured while a handful feature major events of 1962.

        So the card companies have figured out how to “card” some of these other items. I’m wondering if the reason for embedding these items was to provide a crossover to stamp and coin collectors as they are actual stamps and coins. At the very least, if I am ever in dire need of a quarter, I can go yank it out of the Bob Feller card.

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