Growing up, one of my favourite diversionary pursuits on the playground was collecting and swapping Premier League stickers. There was almost nothing quite like getting the packet in Pat’s shop, opening it up to find a shiny club crest nestled in among the Southampton players that would almost immediately find their way into the ‘swapsies’ pile. The familiar words all around the playground were ‘have, have, need, swap’. These stickers were effectively a kind of playground currency, along with pogs (remember them?) and conkers . Today kids don’t collect stickers, but instead more solid cards called Match Attax produced by Topps, but long before any of these came the humble cigarette card…
Football, as with all sports, produces a huge raft of ephemera from the matchday programme, rule books, manuals, postcards, pennants, teamsheets and all kinds of things. One of the most enduring pieces of ephemera though is the cigarette card. According to both Tony Collins and Wray Vamplew in their history of sport and alcohol Mud, Sweat and Beers “cigarette cards featuring famous teams and players of every popular sport, but especially football, captured the imaginations of generations of young boys and men, and the advertising of the product sought to establish its health-giving properties.” It wasn’t only a phenomenon in English football either of course, with Irish players also being included in the cigarette card series’ produced by companies like Gallaher’s and WD & HO Wills’. Not only that, there were even series done of hurling stars in the 1920s. This was all part of sports’ increasing commercial potential of course. According to Joyce Woolridge the first known cigarette card featuring a footballer is dated as far back as 1892. Woolridge writes that
Cigarette cards have endured as a highly popular medium for representing footballers since the turn of the century. Tobacco was a major item of working-class male expenditure and it increased in popularity in the inter-war years, particularly in the form of cigarettes. Tobacco companies were large, national concerns and did not produce for local markets. Cigarette cards were thus in national circulation among smokers and their collectors.
According to Collins and Vamplew’s work by 1948 80% of all men and 41% of all women were smokers, which gives some idea of the reach the image of the footballer through the cards had (to say nothing of the newsreel shown in the smoky cinemas!). The cigarette card endured for much of the twentieth century and certain cigarette cards and series can now fetch prices well above the cost of the original box of cigarettes in which they came (or even a pack of 20 cigarettes today for that matter!). But of course as the effects of smoking became ever more apparent, and it’s health-giving properties were found wanting, the association between cigarettes that helped clear the lungs for greater athleticism and the athlete declined.
Merlin Publishing Ltd. were founded in 1989 and their big break came in 1994 when they were given the official contract by the new Premier League were pretty comprehensive – as well as having the full squads of all twenty teams, the shiny stickers were usually those with the club crest on them. League to produce collectable stickers to placed in sticker albums. These sticker albums were a huge success and the company was acquired in 1995 by Topps, a trading card and chewing gum company famous in the United States for its baseball cards. The company continued with the Merlin brand until the late 2000s switching it then to the Topps name. Although it still produces the sticker series, judging from Irish newsagents and other shops at least, the solid trading cards have overtaken the sticker format as the most popular form of collecting your favourites football stars in miniature, pocket-sized form. So from 1892 to 2012, whether it be taken from behind a pack of cigarettes or bought with sweets in the shop, the tradition continues.