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.
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.