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A History of the Printing Used to Make Baseball Cardsd


This is a quick summary of printing used to make baseball cards, followed by a focus on the famed 1909-11 T206 issue.  These processes and techniques were also used to make the closely related post 1880 sports cards and non-sport trading cards.

One of baseball card authenticator’s luxuries— a luxury that also helps make collecting baseball cards a popular hobby— is that while many ultra rare cards are ordinarily unattainable, many times examples from the issue are.  While most collectors can’t afford a T206 Honus Wagner, they can afford other cards from the same set and that were made from the same process.  The same goes for the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth, 1914 Cracker Jack Shoeless Joe Jackson and so on.  Naturally, there are some issues where obtaining any examples for comparison is nearing impossible.  1887 Four Base Hits, 1913 Fatimia Premiums, 1893 Just So Tobacco and 1923 Fans Cigarettes are few.  However, examining the variety of other cards is useful in establishing significant trends. 

 Nearly all printed (non-photographic) baseball cards were made with either lithography or relief printing.  Since at least 1970, all baseball cards are lithographs.


Lithography:  In the 19th century, the Allen & Ginter, many other colorful inserts and trade cards were handmade chromolithographs.  This means they were made by hand on the printing plate.  This was before the half-tone process in lithography, so there cannot be a half-tone pattern.  Stippling was often used to give tone in some areas.  These isolated areas of dots can be distinguished from from the consistent half-tone pattern on a modern trading card.  Under a microscope, the handmade process becomes apparent.  It often appears to be like a watercolor painting, with lines, swooshes and other marks.  Under higher magnification, and if the printing is on smooth surface, the chromolithographic rim is often revealed.  These trends also exists on many related 19th century signs, posters, tobacco labels and premiums.  Lithography does not tend to fade, and, if well stored, these 19th century cards and collectable prints can retain their original, brilliant colors.

In the golden age, circa 1909-15, baseball  cards were sometimes made with lithography without half-tone that appears much like the cards from the 19th century.  This includes the chromolithographic rim seen under the microscope.  More commonly, however, a colored half-tone lithographic process was used.  This method was applied to the majority of the E (candy) and T (tobacco) inserts, mostly notably the T206 cards.  This is discussed later in following chapter.

Lithography, both halftone and line, was used from the end of the golden age to today.  By the 1950s, and the popularity of the Topps and Bowman cards, the modern style, in particular as it applies to half-tone lithography had been established.  Under the microscope, the half-tone pattern on the typical 1950s card looks much the same as on a 1980s card.  In the late 1990s, due to changes in technology, many cards were printed with a higher density dot pattern (more dots per inch).  In the 1990s, a UV (glossy) coated stock, along with various effects (metal embellishments, refractor and other finishes, etc) were commonly used.


Relief Printing.  A significant minority of vintage cards were made with some form of relief printing.  Significant for authentication purposes, relief printing has not been used for trading cards for many decades.  While the appearance of the microscopic hard relief rim ordinarily does not indicate a date of printing, it strongly suggests that the card is vintage.  On some cardboard or paper stocks the relief rim may not be as apparent.

While one cannot predict with total certainty, there are rules of thumb about when relief print was used.  Newspapers and magazines were traditionally relief prints, and their trading cards and premiums were therefore also commonly relief prints.  Examples include the 1911 M116 Sporting Lifes and 1920s-50s Baseball magazine Premiums.  Non-photographic trading cards with photorealistic realistic black and white images from the late 19th century and first few years of the 20th century, such as the rare Just So and Briesch Williams issues, are most probably relief half-tone prints.  Half-tone lithography could not regularly make realistic images until later.  Many early playing cards, such as 1913 National Game, are relief prints.  A scattering of other vintage issues, including postcards, are relief prints.


Photographic Trading Cards.  A number of early trading cards were photographs.  In the 19th century, probably all photographic trading cards are albumen prints mounted to cardboard backing.  Popular examples, include the Old Judge inserts and cabinet cards, Gypsy Queens, Four Base Hits, Kalamazoo Bats, Peck and Snyder Trade Cards (cartes de visite) and Joseph Hall Cabinet Cards.  Examination of albumen prints is discussed earlier in this book.  Due to the distinct signs of the process and that it hasn’t been used commercially for many decades, should make authentication of these cards straightforeward.

In the early 20th, before World War II, there were a few photographic trading cards..  This include the various 1910s Fatima issues, Pinkerton Cabinets and circa 1930 Ray-O-Print Ruth and Gehrig.  All of these are gelatin-silver prints, and will often have the typical silvering effect.


Other Printing Processes. Nearly all cataloged trading cards were made with the just described processes.  A few exceptions are known are will no doubt pop up in the future.  Etching and engraving was sometimes used on vintage baseball related items, such as letterheads.  Other than the odd obscurity (most likely an early trade card or postcard), etching and engraving was not used trading cards.  Postcards were made with a variety of processes.  The collector or examiner might come across a cyanotype (bright blue) real photo or a collotype postcard.  Some postcards used more than one process, such as relief and lithography, or relief and hand coloring.

Though out of the ordinary, these processes should help authentication.  It is more than unlikely that the baseball card forger is going to use etching, engraving or collotype.  The forgery is more likely to use a computer printer or modern half-tone lithography.


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