Categorizing Cards

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Card Terminology for Collectors

"To My Darling," a sho-card lettered postcard, gilded, embossed, and varnished, 1910s

Postcards, arcade cards, cigarette cards, gum cards, playing cards, trade cards, and trading cards are loosely defined terms, but since they are found as illustrations throughout Your Wate and Fate, a simple shuffle is in order:

  • Arcade Cards: Images and/or text printed on a variety of weights of card stock which are made to be emitted from a machine of some sort. Most of the machines are coin-operated, but some are set to "free play." Arcade card topics include jokes, toasts, pin-ups, film stars, musicians, sports figures, fortune telling, and character analysis, including methods such as astrology, numerology, palmistry, and cartomancy. They vary greatly in size, from tiny squares through thin rectangles, and up to postcard format. Some of the latter bear a printed postcard back, allowing them to be sent through the mails.
  • Business Cards: Small cards, usually printed on medium-weight index stock, they bear the name of a businessperson and/or a company. They may also carry an address, telephone number, hours of operation, and a line or two of advertising. Most are single-sided, with the back left blank for writing a personal message if needed, but some are double-sided and may advertise specific products or a line of goods on the reverse.
  • Cigarette Cards: Small, often fairly narrow, and typically colourful, these light-weight cards are given as random inclusions in packages of cigarettes. They generally come in sets of 12, 25, or 50 cards, and are meant to be educational or instructive. Cigarette card sets cover a wide variety of topics, including ethnography, botany, zoology, geography, archaeology, divination, celebrities, and sports. In recent years, due to the health dangers of smoking, they have fallen out of favour and been replaced by trading cards.
  • Fortune Paper Card Slips: These are fortune telling or character analysis texts, sometimes illustrated, which are printed on various weights of paper. They may be emitted from a machine, either flat or rolled in a tube; found in a package of candy; or arrive baked within a cookie.
Fred C. Lounsbury Crescent series 2037-4 Cartomancy Postcard, 1907: The Nine of Hearts portends Success and Happiness
Palmistry Cigarette Card by Major Drapkin and Company, front and back, teaching palmistry
Business card of Madam Taylor, a travelling Psychic Reader, in Albany, Missouri, circa 1920s-1930s
E. Nash Motto Series M-6 Postcards, Daffodils, part of a set on floriography or the symbolic language of flowers
  • Gum Cards: Similar to cigarette cards, these are generally printed at a wider aspect ratio and on thicker card stock to fit a flat slab of chewing gum. They come in sets varying from 50 to more than 100 cards. Topics are the same as for cigarette cards. In recent years, due to the damage that decaying chewing gum does to the card stock, they have fallen out of favour and been replaced by trading cards.
  • Oracle Cards: Although oracle cards, with their artistic images, rounded corners, and varnished or plastic coated surfaces, closely resemble playing cards, they are designed for one purpose only -- to tell fortunes or provide a character analysis. They are not repurposed gaming cards, like poker, tarot, or Lenormand cards, but decks or sets of images and text to be used in sortilege only. Oracle cards are often organized by topic, like cigarette cards, but due to their function in sooth-saying the topics covered are limited to spiritual concepts such as angels, deities, mystical stones, magical herbs, and so forth.
  • Playing Cards: Made of medium-weight index stock, often coated with varnish or plastic, and almost always featuring machine-cut rounded corners, playing cards are designed for use in games such as poker, euchre, bridge, authors, rummy, tarocchi, tarot, and go fish! The number of cards in a set or deck varies according to the game to be played, generally from 32 to 78. The cards in a deck may be organized into sub-sets called suits, and they may also bear printed numbers to facilitate game play. fortune telling by cards, also known as cartomancy, is a form of sortilege, in which the reading is interpreted according to traditional rules concerning the meaning of the cards and their position in an array, which is called the layout. Popular game cards used in cartomancy include poker cards, Spanish playing cards, tarot cards, and Lenormand card.
  • Postcards: Images and/or text printed on flexible card stock and suitable to be sent through the mails, postcards evolved out of private mailing cards, and by 1905 they had become an international craze. The postcard craze lasted well into World War One, and ended in part because the best printers were in Germany, the enemy of America and Britain during the hostilities. While the war was on, German printers could no longer supply customers in the Allied nations, and local American and British printers could not supply enough cards, or as beautifully gilded and embossed cards as the German ones, to support the demand. As a result, the postcard craze more or less came to an end in 1917. See more on identifying and dating postcards at this Mystic Tea Room page on Dating Tea Room Postcards.
  • Sho-Cards: Point-of-sale advertising cards on stiff card stock featuring inventive hand-lettering. The sho-card style of lettering was also used in the design of postcards during the early 20th century. The name derives from "show card" -- a card that names a product and shows its price -- but it is never spelled any way other than "sho-card."
  • Tea Cards: Similar to cigarette or gum cards, these are included in boxes of tea. Some tea companies have issued cards on topics such as botany, zoology, or geography, but others restrict themselves to the topic of growing, harvesting, packing, distributing, and serving tea.
  • Trade Cards: Not to be confused with the similar-sounding trading cards, trade cards are a form of advertising card, generally larger than a business card, and very often bearing beautiful artwork which may or may not relate to the product or company being advertise. Their height of production was during the Victorian and Edwardian period, and most of them were reproduced by chromolithography.
  • Trading Cards: As cigarette, gum, and tea cards were always subject to staining by the products with which they were packaged, collectors began to ask for cards that were sold simply as cards, not as sales incentives. Known as trading cards, these are released either in pre-boxed full-set form (usually 36 cards on a single topic per box), or in randomized packets of 10 cards, which are collected and traded to make up sets of 110 cards. Serious collectors buy cases, open the packets, and assemble complete sets for resale. Topics found on these cards are generally sports teams, but a sub-genre, known rather awkwardly as non-sports trading cards, includes topics such as films, celebrities, political events, or news stories.

See Also

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catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
Your Wate and Fate