Children and hobbies in 1930s Britain: cigarette cards

 

Hobby objects: a cigarette card album from the 1930s

This hobby object, an album from 1934/5, contains cigarette cards of radio celebrities. The paper quality is quite rough; the album itself cost a 1d, maybe 50p or 60p in today’s money. An album fingered and smoothed by a collector, but who? A child? An adult? Someone precise, certainly, given the careful way the cards have been stuck to the pages. A once-valued, personal memento, preserved in a family, eventually sold by an on-line bookseller. One of thousands of similar albums which survive from the period and are relatively cheap to buy.

The album suggests a personal story, but also a more public one. Collecting cigarette cards was immensely popular in the 1930s, when cards were given away free in cigarette packs. Their bright illustrations reflect the incursions that colour and marketing were making into children’s lives in the interwar years, although they weren’t unique to these decades, having first been introduced in the 1880s, when cheap cigarettes started to spread not only among adults but among children and young people in their teens. Cigarette manufacturers originally used blank cards to stiffen their cigarette packets, but coloured pictures quickly became a means of cementing brand loyalty among new smokers which helped initiate younger boys into the ‘adult’ culture of smoking as they cadged cards from older boys and adults.

The 1930s were the golden age of cigarette card collecting, when new technologies of lithography and the growth of consumer culture enabled the cigarette card market to grow on a mass scale. Commercial changes introduced new themes which played much more directly to the notion of glamour and celebrity through illustrations of film stars. Sport, however, especially football, cricket and golf, remained very popular, reflecting the early dominance of men as smokers. The print-runs of football cards could run into millions.

Children and adults collected themed sets, which were available to buy from local tobacconists. Major companies ran their own studios entirely focused on the production of cigarette cards. 2,000 sets were created by 100 manufacturers in the 1920s and 1930s and collecting became so popular that the London Cigarette Card Company established a magazine specifically for more serious collectors in 1933, called the Cigarette Card News.

This particular album’s cover, of a young woman speaking into a microphone, was geared to the novelty and youthfulness of the new medium of radio and illustrated by a drawing of Broadcasting House in Portland Place, opened in 1932.

Inside, the cigarette cards of largely mature looking radio celebrities, tell a rather different story. These ‘Stars of the Air’ were described as bringing ‘personality’ to the microphone, a ‘modern’ quality often discussed in the press which was beginning to supersede older notions of ‘character’ in popular culture. Many ‘stars’ look older than their ages. Their images subverted the glamorous idea of celebrity associated with contemporary film stars and sporting heroes, but were in keeping with the BBC’s self-proclaimed identity as an serious influence in national culture. The album’s celebration of ‘radio celebrities’ suggests how listening cultures were being transformed in the 1930s, when millions tuned into programmes in the intimacy of their own homes, as radio domesticated the loud rhetoric of the traditional public sphere. The album’s content illustrates the expectations of these new listening relationships. ‘Stars of the Air’  added ‘a personal touch’ to names already very familiar to audiences, providing visual clues to the invisible individual behind the voice.

This album is an unassuming item, a survival from children’s material culture which suggests the type of solitary hobby that expanded with the growth of commercial leisure in the interwar years. The cards it holds had a social identity. They were an important part of children’s collecting and trading and cultures which illustrate not only how advertisers and new media were already tapping into children’s ‘pester-power’, but also how children used them for their own purposes. Cigarette cards were integral to playground activities such as collecting and trading and served as a form of currency, especially among boys, whom producers deliberately targeted in popular series about sporting heroes and military themes.

Many children collected cards just for the pictures and play opportunities but others took pleasure in the descriptions that accompanied them which covered a wide range of themes, including nature, history and geography. They were a form of informal learning, ‘mini-encyclopaedias’ for young minds which thirsted for knowledge yet were often frustrated by schooling.

Cigarette card collecting was curtailed during the Second World War due to paper shortages. After the war, it became too expensive and perhaps less acceptable to provide free cards in cigarette packets. As tea came off the ration in the early 1950s, however, tea manufacturers started to adopt the same ‘pester power’ approach to their marketing, by adding free cards to packets of tea. Children’s card collecting habit thus continued into the 1960s, when tea cards are estimated to have reached a circulation of 720 million. Like their parents before them, children continued to swap cards with friends, play complicated ‘flicking’ games and collect sets for their albums.

Card-swopping

This modest collection of cards is a memento of a hobby common to many children, a reminder of how children’s cultures are made not just through social relationships but also through relationships with things, adapted and developed for their own purposes as well as those envisaged by adults.

Melanie Tebbutt, Manchester Metropolitan University: m.tebbutt@mmu.ac.uk