Images as Currency

Before I joined SABR I had a post on my own blog which looked at baseball cards and the role they played in developing my visual literacy. Over the past year of watching various Zoom presentations with my kids about the history of cards I’ve found myself realizing that I need to write a similar post about the way baseball cards also track the way that we, as humans developed visual literacy.

Baseball and baseball cards sort of eerily parallel the development and evolution of photography with a number of rough steps starting around the Civil War before finally coalescing in the late 19th Century around something that’s not changed much over the last 125 years. The thing though is that baseball cards are but a thin sliver of this development.

The hobby has a tendency to talk about cards and collecting as if they evolved as part of baseball history. I get it; we collect cards and aren’t photo historians. But I think it’s important to understand how, if anything, cards basically came along for the ride and that their history is less a history of baseball but a lesson on how we learned to use photographs and changed our relationship with celebrity.

A couple years ago I read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths. It’s a great book about Sojourner Truth and how she supported herself in part by selling cartes de visite. I went into the book expecting history about photographs and what they depict, and how they interact with issues of race, power, and privilege. Instead I came out with an appreciation of how printed images function within our society.

For most of human history, portraits were only accessible to the wealthy. You had to pay an extremely skilled artist to paint you and you only got one piece out of it. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century things got a lot more accessible. Tintypes and ambrotypes were affordable* to a much wider range of people. However they are still one-off pieces. The negative itself is treated in such a way that it becomes a positive** and there is no way to make prints.

*25¢ to $2.50 during the Civil War years. So not cheap but something many soldiers or freedmen were able to acquire.

**Watching one develop is as close to seeing real magic as anyone could ever hope to see.

Napoleon III & Empress Eugenie

The next step, making prints from negatives,* opened up the age of photography as we truly know it. Rather than an image being a singular piece, prints could be made and disseminated all over the world. These quickly became cartes de visite and, later, cabinet cards. Cartes de visite are literally visiting cards but took off as soon as they began to be used as celebrity—at first royal—portaits. the resulting phenomena became known as cartomania and became a serious thing both abroad and in the United States.

*In this case albumen prints from glass negatives.

Coming back to Sojourner Truth, not only were people collecting cards, notable people like Truth were producing them for sale as well, modifying them to not only be photographs but to include messages.* Card making and collecting is not only a hobby but a business that can support people whose images are in demand.

*In Truth’s case “I sell the shadow to support the substance”

Grigsby points out that in parallel with cartomania, autograph collecting also saw a massive surge in interest during the Victorian Era as the idea of collecting expanded to include all manner of people. She also makes an amazing connection to the rise of printed, national currency following the National Bank Act and how said currency is also heavily image based. The rise of postal systems and stamps starting from 1840 to the point where we had to create an international standard in 1874 is also worth mentioning here. Stamps were immediately collected and are another way that images became currency.

Cartes de visite, stamps, autographs, etc all ended up being stored in albums and shown to visitors in ways that are shockingly familiar to any of us card collectors today. We have pages that are frequently better for preservation but both the concept and practice of the card binder emerged hand in hand with the cards themselves.

It’s impossible for me to look at sets like Old Judge or Goodwin & Company outside the collecting world which existed in this era. When images are currency and the idea of celebrity culture and “set” collection has taken such a strong hold, it’s no surprise that companies started to create cards of their own.

These are photos—cabinet cards actually—which were printed for commercial instead of personal reasons. They depict all kinds of athletes as well as actors, actresses, and other famous people. Yes they’re promotional items. But they clearly were intended to be collected and traded in the same way as the individually-produced cards were.

Cards and photography usage only begins to diverge a bit in the late 19th century when cabinet cards began to die out due to the emergence of amateur photography. At this point other forms of printed images took up the torch since cards and card collecting were firmly entrenched. Manufacturers like Allen & Ginter in the US (and many others abroad) created sports sets including baseball players, billiards shooters, boxers, and pedestrians and non-sports sets depicting animals, flowers, flags, etc. There was plenty of stuff to choose from; if you could imagine a collection there’s a decent chance there’s a set of it out there.*

*Up until World War 2 the world of trading cards was massive and wonderfully varied. This represents over eight decades of card collecting. I’ve been grabbing “pre-war”sets which cover whatever subject matter strikes my interest—from Hollywood to science to travel because they represent how cards became an affordable way to create your own wunderkammer.

One of the things I love most in this hobby is how it remains a direct connection to the way we originally used photographs. Yes I love baseball. But I also love photography and being able to experience how the the world of cartomania still survives today is fantastic.

It’s why I love the non-sport elements of the modern Ginter sets. It’s why things like exhibit cards fascinate me. It’s why I enjoy Jay Publishing, team-issued postcards, and other card-related photopacks which are aren’t necessarily cards. I can see all these different directions that the hobby could have gone in. Different ways of designing sets and releasing cards. Different concepts of who is worth depicting.

It all reaches back to the 19th century when we realized how images are currency. Something people are willing to purchase and save and trade. The history of card collecting depicts baseball. But it embodies how we learned to see and how we learned to use images.

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

11 thoughts on “Images as Currency”

  1. Great article. I can imagine the excitement of a person who had their picture taken when photography was new. Just think, a person could carry around a picture of themselves! I love the old photos and tintypes seeing how the people dressed and the world around them. In the Sojourner Truth photo you can see the string hanging from her lap. Unacceptable in todays photos.

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  2. Very interesting. I hadn’t thought about how baseball & cards parallel the development of photography. As an aside, a couple years ago, my wife and I were at a brewery where there was an artist selling tintypes, so we posed for one — had to stand still for a few seconds — to bring home as a souvenir.

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  3. Nick, I love this article. It’s a nice perspective beyond the usual focus on baseball cards. Your article reinforces a similar aspect of card collecting that I’ve realized applies to me right now. I’m 60 and love cards from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s that I collected as a kid. I also like collecting modern cards as a way of chronicling the present. I’ve been struggling the last few years to find my modern collecting niche.

    At first I was drawn to Topps Heritage because it featured modern players on the designs of my favorite vintage years. But I’ve grown tired of Heritage because of the contrived scarcity with the short prints of most of the good players. Even worse, I think the photography and print quality on Heritage is terrible. The portrait lighting in the photos is overly photoshopped and the lens selection they use to take the photos results in photographs that look unnaturally skewed. And what was going on during that terrible run from 2011 through 2016 Heritage where they artificially introduced graininess in the photographs? Heritage was good from 2001 through 2010, but beyond that it’s a disaster.

    I’ve dabbled in Topps Archives because of the card designs are vintage-ey and you don’t have to worry about Mike Trout or Mookie Betts being short printed every year. But Archives has proved unsatisfactory too. While I enjoy seeing current players in old-style set designs, it really bugs me to see cards of classic players in cards that were released long after the player retired. Lou Gehrig doesn’t belong on a 2019 card released in the style of 1993 cards. Warren Spahn doesn’t belong on a card that looks like ’92 Topps.

    Topps base sets have excellent photography, but I don’t really care for the style of the cards, and I don’t want to deal with all the nobodies in the sets.

    Recently my eye has turned to Stadium Club, and your article reinforces why Stadium Club is the best choice for me. Card production has evolved to where we have the technical capability to produce outstanding photographs on outstanding card stock. I’m a photography enthusiast and have watched with great joy the advancements in digital photography and photographic production techniques the last 20 years. The Stadium Club cards to me best reflect the capabilities card producers can offer to collectors. These cards celebrate the art of baseball photography better than any other set produced. The focus is on current players. While there are short prints, they are variations of the stars and not the only option for the stars. And even though these sets are loaded with cards of retired players, they are not as anachronistic to me as Archives or the Topps Legends variations. Instead, they fit with the theme of the Stadium Club set as a photographic celebration of the beauty of baseball.

    I’ve now become a Stadium Club collector, and will probably eschew Heritage and Archives going forward. Stadium Club is beautiful, and it reflects the current currency of the capabilities we have to produce beautiful baseball photographs on a card. Thanks for helping me coalesce my thinking on the subject.

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    1. Yeah there’s a lot of fake nostalgia in modern cards that feels incredibly uncanny valley when it comes to design reuse and other things like that. Some things are done well. Many things are not. And if photography is your niche then Stadium Club is where it’s at.

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      1. I went back and read your May 2017 blog post about technological developments in photography influencing how cards look. My head exploded! It was exactly what I’ve been thinking. Your comments about the Heritage cards not looking the way we expect them too is spot on – especially 2017 and newer. I hadn’t thought as much about the shot angles, use of flash, and capabilities of the lenses, but it makes total sense. It also appears to me that many of the recent Heritage cards suffer from too much digital dodging in Photoshop. The player’s faces are unnaturally bright compared to what you would see in a vintage card, and even what you would normally present as a good photograph. Stadium Club portrait photos don’t suffer this same ailment. Even the 35th Anniversary inserts which come in base Topps packs look more natural than Heritage. Thank you for the insights. Lots to think about and learn.

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    2. I don’t pay too much attention t0 Heritage – I might buy a box if I feel like opening something and it’s the right price – but I find it interesting that you peg 2010-2011 as the turning point. That’s right around the time when Topps was granted exclusive licensing from MLB. I know Panini is a competitor, but without being able to show the team logos the cards are lacking (at least to me) as there are certain shots that just don’t work well without the logos. I’m a firm believer that the lack of competition has brought us the same products and type of products in recent years. As a set builder I wasn’t really into Project 2020 at first but at least it was different (though not helpful if photography is key), and then I warmed up to it.

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      1. There’s this weird thing going on where hobby orthodoxy simultaneously holds that Topps cards from the 1960s are the pinnacle of the hobby and that Topps having an effective monopoly is why modern cards are so boring.

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      2. Should note. I don’t think it’s the monopoly that’s the problem but rather the nature of running big businesses now encourages maximum-profit short-term thinking.

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      3. I’ll assume it is nostalgic feelings that have people thinking that 1960s Topps is the pinnacle of the hobby. Personally I find some of the 1960s issues to be some of the lazier issues (even if certain cards, like the 1969 Topps Reggie Jackson, have a magic aura to me personally) but then again I didn’t grow up collecting 1960s issues. I know there were all sorts of battles with the MLBPA, but reusing photos (even if cropped differently), poor airbrushing, etc. doesn’t seem like a high quality product. I’m guessing most people think the pinnacle of card production was the era in which they collected, unless …

        Unless they think the pinnacle is the 1950s. Now the 1950s cards, when Topps and Bowman were competing, and even the later 1950s and early 1960s cards, when there was likely some residual effect from the competition years with Bowman and potential entry from other competitors (like Fleer) before Topps had truly established its monopoly produced what I think many consider to be very nice cards regardless of whether they collected during that time or whether they can afford them today. I think there is some of that residual effect in the 2010-2011 time period as well, when Topps produced “lower end” (relative to today’s newer lines) one-off lines like National Chicle and Lineage. Not that those are necessarily “great” products, just that Topps was trying to establish something different (and personally I strongly prefer the 2011 Topps Lineage design to the 2021 Topps flagship design, the latter of which makes me feel like it’s a modern day Bowman product).

        Or unless they started collecting in the junk wax era, because cards from that time have been stigmatized as essentially worthless. I don’t hold that view (nor do I think the 1960s sets are the pinnacle of card production), though I still think the period immediately following the junk was era was a high point for card production, if one doesn’t focus on the dollar value of the cards (though some are quite expensive).

        I’d argue that Topps was certainly a short term profit maximizer during its original monopoly, mainly because I doubt they had any idea what their decisions of the day meant for their longer term viability. As Jeff mentions in his comment on the Baseball Card Club post, collecting was to be shielded from public view (it was a kid’s hobby; or perhaps viewed as a nerd’s hobby and that was pre-Revenge of the Nerds time so nerds weren’t cool) for certain age groups at that time. That Topps shortprinted high numbers seems to be an indication that they were thinking about short-term profits because they printed what they thought they could sell at the time. I don’t think they gave any consideration as to how that decision affected the long-term value of the cards. But I don’t think that’s any different than when there was competition in the late 1980s – the companies printed what they could sell at the time. I’m fairly certain I remember staff members at one of the companies mentioned it was like printing money – they printed it, and people bought it.

        Topps doesn’t do that now (print and print and print the same product until they can’t sell any more) because they’ve established multiple product lines and I think they realize that no one really wants 1,000 copies of the same card (unless it’s some crazy person like me) so it’s likely not the best short-term profit maximizing strategy. They likely could have cranked up production on some of the 2021 products with the way they have been flying off shelves, but like the 1980s, those production increases will likely lag demand. I recall 1987 Donruss and Fleer being more difficult to obtain than 1987 Topps (which seemed to be sold everywhere), but in later years it was easy enough to find Donruss and Fleer (and Score and Upper Deck) in all sorts of places once they realized they could print more and sell it.

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