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By David Rudd


April 15th 2002


* The Vintage Collector is an occasional email newsletter, covering authentication and related topics in fine and collectable arts.  Comments, questions and submissions are always welcome



-- Authenticating 19th Century Tobacco Albums


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In the 1880s, several big American tobacco companies promoted their products using various inserts and premiums.  The most famous and common inserts were the small tobacco cards literally inserted into the cigarette packs or related tobacco products.  These cards were either colorful lithographs or photographs (albumen prints mounted to a same sized cards), and depicted athletes, actors, politicians, generals, animals, flowers and other popular subjects.


The companies also issued premiums, or send-aways too large to fit into a cigarette pack.  To obtain the premium of choice, the smoker would ordinarily have to collect the requisite number of coupons that were inserted with the tobacco card into the cigarette product.  This is much the same as when, as kids, we mailed cereal box tops or proofs-of-purchase to get the toy or baseball cap or whatever.  There was a wide range of 19th century tobacco premiums, the most common being cabinet photographs (again depicting athletes, actresses and other popular people) and albums.


There were several different kinds tobacco albums, and they were comprised of a cover and several pages, usually bound together with string or ribbon.  The pages were made out of heavy stock, similar to that used for the tobacco cards.  Each page contained a beautiful and colorful lithograph, usually incorporating the related tobacco cards against an ornate background.  This means that a particular album pictures the complete set of tobacco cards from a particular series.  The albums can be unbound, by removing the string or ribbon from holes punched in edges of the pages, and pages are often bought and sold singly.  Albums, and even single pages, are much scarcer than the tobacco cards, and the most expensive baseball-related albums can sell for several thousands of dollars in strong condition.  The graphics on these albums were made by hand, rather than by the modern commercial processes, which means these albums are original pieces of art.


** Pictures of various albums and album pages can be viewed at the below link.  This is part of a large section on 19th century baseball cards, so the written coverage is specifically on baseball related albums only:



As far as I know, these albums have not been reprinted or forged, at least not commonly.  This is probably due in part to their unusual, bound nature and often large dimensions (albums vary is size and shape).  However, due to the often high price, and as many have never seen one in person before and new and unique examples may come to light, I will offer some quick tips to authentication.  With experience, authentication is simple and should take a matter of a minute or two.



The key to authentication is to examine the printing on the front of the pages (most pages are blank backed).  The printing was made in an old-fashioned way, using out of date inks.  One thing to remember is that lithography does not necessarily fade, and many albums will retail their original, brilliant colors.  Don't be alarmed if the colors seem to good to be old.


First, the graphics were not done by the modern mass-production techniques to make today's commercial products.  The tobacco company's lithographers did have available the half-tone printing methods that makes all those tiny dots in today's commercial prints.  The graphics for the albums were made by hand, the artist essentially drawing the design directly onto the printing plate.  If you examine the printing with a magnifying glass, most areas of the printing will be completely solid.  It really does look as if someone drew or painted it on.  For tone and texture, the artist would often add by hand or by a spiked rolling tool areas of dots.  But these relatively large and irregular dots are easily distinguished from the saturated half-tone pattern commonly used in the 20th century.


The next thing is to take a microscope to examine the ink.  While I prefer 100X Power (100 times power), one of those cheap hand-held 30X power should do the trick.  In the late 19th century, the ink that was used was much different than today's, or even from 1930.  The ink used on the albums was thin and watery, and these qualities shows up in the printing.  Compared to modern lithographic ink that is opaque and almost appears gluey, the printing on these albums is translucent, and resembles a watercolor painting.  This watercolor quality is dramatic, easily identifiable and helps prove beyond reasonable doubt  that the albums were made in the 19th century.



As already noted, the albums were designs that included pictures of the tobacco cards.  It is not uncommon to find one of these pictured cards that are cut from an album.  Due to the current prices for albums, these 'cards' were undoubtedly cut many years ago.  These 'cut outs' are distinguished from the genuine tobacco cards, due to a combination of the following qualities: irregular handcut borders, blank backs (the real cards had text on the backs), black edges and slight difference in text from the genuine card.  On some albums, the cards are laid out so that some overlap each other, which makes identification of the cutouts simple.  There are also cards from advertising posters, but these are extremely rare and these tobacco posters will be covered in a future newsletter.



That's it, thanks for reading


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