The Reading and Writing Life: Cigarette Cards

How_to_Hold_Pets_-_1
A cigarette card from the NYPL collection, offering help on that frequent query, “how do I hold my Guinea Pig?”

As a regular denizen of various libraries and library websites, I frequently am surprised about what they have and hang on to. A case in point is cigarette cards, a bit of ephemera that has its own little history as a collectible.  The York Public Library has heaps, many from the UK, and they’ve digitized the lot.

Initially just used to stiffen the packaging, cigarette cards became sort of baseball cards for adults, with an image and a little blurb. (Dare I say tumblr or pinterest-esque?).

Some are quite fetching, others a little scary, but they offer one unfiltered view of what was popular in a different age. (Would “American Editors” rate their own series of anything now? Shows what prestige the newspaper biz had 100+ years ago. Even somebody as awesomely named and mutton-chopped as Oswald Ottendorfer of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung probably wouldn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page today.)

Oswald has lots of other sometimes wonderful and sometimes inexplicable company: pets, sports (including golf holes), movie stars, far away places, gizmos, jokes, you name it. A coil ignition system? For intent study during your cigarette and coffee break? Hmm.

One I particularly liked was “Figures of Speech,” many of which are still current, but what on earth is “All my eye and Betty Martin”? It takes on “Queer Street” and it’s not what you think, although an “uncle” is involved.

NYPL has a nice “ABC of Cigarette Cards” and here’s a slideshow of a few of the many that caught my eye.

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