Monday, August 26, 2013

Poetry Trading Cards

Back in the day, when the differences between Topps, Fleer, and Donruss baseball cards were crucial distinctions for some of us in the P&PC Office, and when were happy to do nothing more than spend hours and hours ordering, reordering, and moving our card collections from one government cheese box to another, a prize of any collection was the tobacco card—the slightly-bigger-than-a-9-volt-battery-sized card, usually from 1909 or 1910, usually with corners rounded from age and handling if not stints in between the spokes of some boy's bike, and originally given away for free with tobacco products.

We all held such cards with reverence, storing them—if we could somehow get our hands on them—between heavy, inflexible pieces of transparent plastic. Not only were they old, but each one tangibly linked us to the story of the T-206 Honus Wagner (pictured here): how the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop refused to lend his visage to the tobacco industry, how he righteously demanded that the American Tobacco Company recall all of his cards, and how the few cards that managed to sneak into circulation (some estimate between 50 and 200) went on to become the most rare, famous, and valuable cards in history (one card recently sold for $2.8 million). Every dusty box we came across in every attic or barn was, we never ceased believing, full of abandoned, mint condition tobacco cards. And among those cards was, we were certain, the T-206 Wagner.

Nowadays, when we think of them, those imaginary dusty boxes are more likely full of old books (especially an 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass) than they are baseball cards, but more likely than either of those scenarios is that we might come across something like a mixture between the two: like, for example, the set of 54 "Camera Studies" trading cards produced in 1926 by the British cigarette manufacturer Cavanders Ltd. and pictured here. What's remarkable about these cards is not the full and complete set that we have in our possession, nor the excellent condition they're in, but how each card features a scene from the British countryside on front and—wait for it—a quotation from a famous poet on the back.

Originally based in Manchester, Cavanders was founded in 1775 and lasted until 1961 when it was taken over by the Godfrey Philips cigarette company whose main factory is now in Mumbai. For a time in the early twentieth century, Cavanders was the UK's largest supplier of cigarette cards, issuing forty-one different series including a set of miniature stereoview cards complete with a Camerascope for viewing them. The "Camera Studies" poem series features handpainted photos—which means that every card is unique (think of all the labor that went into that)—paired with quotations on back related to the respective cards' subject matter. There's Shakespeare, Spencer, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Herrick and others. All are British, with a heavy representation of the Romantics, except for two cards that include Longfellow. The quotations are predominantly classic; Swinburne and Rupert Brooke are the only two authors in the set who lived into the twentieth century.

One card captioned "The Placid Stream," for example (pictured here), features a babbling brook paired with an excerpt from Shelley's "A Dream of the Unknown" (image below):

And nearer to the river's trembling edge,
There grew broad flag-flowers, purple prank with white.

Our quick Google searches don't turn up much on Cavanders, let alone anything about how many of these cards were eventually issued or how they were used: Were they traded? Collected in albums like American advertising cards were? Shared by cigarette-smoking men with their wives and children the way cigarette-smoking American men gave tobacco baseball cards to their kids? Is it possible that, in some British clubs, groups of men poured each other brandies, lit up together, and read the poems aloud? Is it possible that they swapped verses hoping to compile a complete set of their own? (Now that's something we want to see on Downton Abbey!)

We suspect that someone out there could make some interesting arguments about how these cards affected the place of the Romantics—if not poetry in general—in the cultural imagination, as they so closely link Shelley, Wordsworth, et al. with nature and not those authors' radical politics or social concerns. We also think there's something to be said for how Cavanders appealed to almost "timeless" pastoral and agricultural scenes immediately following World War I; the presence of Brooke, who was killed in the war, suggests that these cards may on some level be treating or at least responding to a national trauma by looking backward in time. But as the P&PC Board of Directors hasn't yet approved the addition of a British poetry specialist to our office of Americanists, we can't say for sure.

What we do know, however, is that you don't need a Honus Wagner T-206-like $2.8 mill to get your paws on a set of cards like these. Nor do you have to go searching your attic for an abandoned dusty box. Nope. We checked around in some price books and collector sites online, and the "Camera Studies" series is a lot more affordable. If you head over to eBay today, for example, you can in fact find individual cards listed for less than three bucks a pop (or best offer) as well as a listing for a complete set with a starting minimum bid of U.S. $2.32. Happy bidding.