Believe it or not, modern sports trading cards, and even trading card games, got their start in the 17th century as trade cards for advertising. With the invention of lithography and color printing in the late 19th century, these bright, colorful cards became popular novelties for both children and adults to save. Leave it to industry and capitalism to fuel a collectible passion that’s lasted almost 200 years!

…So, what was the first trade card ever made?

The earliest known examples of trade cards hail from Europe in the 1670s. They were printed in black and white on some type of paper and advertised a good, trade, and specific seller. They often included artistic elements with a blank area for specific information unique to the issuer of the cards. While they may not have been the prettiest to look at, these cards are also now considered the precursor to modern day business cards.

After the American Civil War, the economy boomed and with it the technology to produce and the need to distribute trade cards to promote business and services. Color brought a new level of excitement and detail to trade cards, and the subject matters they depicted also grew in variety. The Victorian Era saw trade cards become more visually appealing with big, bold images on one side of the card with advertisements generally found on the reverse. This led people to start trading and saving the cards to collect entire sets for their scrapbooks.

…And when were the first sports trading cards made?

Multiple sports and teams were featured on trade cards in the late 1880s, but Goodwin Tobacco is largely credited with producing the first single-player cards (like we know today) in 1886 with the Old Judge baseball card set. The cards were printed on paperboard and designed to protect cigarettes while displayed in their packaging. As a bonus, baseball was a newfound and very popular sport at the time, so these cards appealed to men (tobacco’s target audience) and increased cigarette sales, as all the guys wanted cards of their own.

It wasn’t long before other industries saw the opportunity to create baseball cards to sell their products. Tobacco companies were joined by manufacturers like Cracker Jack, the American Caramel Company, Goudey Gum, and more. This opened up the market to target children, which only furthered the collectible craze up until WWII when the war effort limited the usage of paper for frivolous purposes. Very few sets survived the prewar era, which is why these trading cards are some of the most valuable sports cards on the market today.

…And when were trading card games introduced?

It wasn’t until 1993 that trading cards evolved into TCG when Magic: The Gathering came to the market. Like their ancestors, trading card games were brightly printed on cardstock and are intended for collecting. Building the perfect set to play with as a matter of strategy was the intended goal, and before long other collectible card games like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh were introduced as well.

Trading card games succeeded in a time that saw the popularity of collecting sports cards fade, as the sports card market of the early 1980’s and 1990’s became oversaturated with many cards in production, thus decreasing their rarity and the need to trade among collectors.

…And what’s next for collectible cards?

Trade cards, trading cards, and trading card games have always embraced the spirit of the times in which they thrived. From industry in the Victorian Era, professional sports in the early 20th century, to science fiction and fantasy in the late 20th century, each captured the interest of the general public and fueled their popularity. What’s next for us and trading cards in general remains to be seen! 


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