Fall 2013

Smoking, Reading, Daydreaming

Cigarette cards as a technology of knowledge

Susan Zieger

Cigarette cards were diminutive objects that harbored an outsized ambition: to inventory everything in the world. They divided this totality into series that ran the gamut from natural history (tropical flowers, birds’ nests, animals and their furs) and cultural history (kings and queens of England, Hindu gods, famous railway trains) to recent popular culture (cinema stars, champion prizefighters, football club badges). This encyclopedic index was dispersed among millions of people who in the period between the 1880s and 1940s collected, traded, studied, played with, and discarded the tiny rectangles on which it was inscribed.1 Its vestiges reside today in libraries, museums, and private collections, where they can be studied as a mass cultural experiment in the ordering of information.2 How did smoking—an infamously unproductive, irrational activity—generate such a vast archive of knowledge?

The modern history of the cards began in the early 1880s, when the Bonsack machine started spitting cigarettes out at the rate of some two hundred per minute.3 It soon replaced the largely feminine labor of hand-rolling them and, for the most part, rendered obsolete the Victorian jumble of smoking implements—clay and wooden pipes and narghilehs—as well as cigars, cheroots, and the like. As the new century approached, cigarettes began to symbolize modern speed, regularity, and convenience. Manufacturers such as Allen & Ginter in the US and John Player & Sons in the UK quickly realized that the cardboard “stiffeners” designed to protect the delicate rolls from being crushed in their packets could also advertise their brands and increase their allure. The high volume of individual consumption required variety between and novelty in every pack, and advances in color lithography and flat-press printing obliged, generating vivid little pictures and miniature text for each tiny card.4 Typically, each card included one example of the series’ theme, the brand name, and some descriptive text; cards often came in sets of twenty-five or fifty, though there was no standard. The longest series, Ogden’s “Actresses, Prominent People, and Subjects of General History,” ran from 1899 to 1910, comprising more than twenty thousand cards—“a complete social history of the period.”5 Cigarettes became an information medium of sorts: just by smoking them, one might acquire new facts. Before long, trivia about flags of the world, swimming champions, lighthouses, and the like became known as “cigarette-card knowledge.”6

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