20th Century Cigarette Cards Show India As Seen By British Tobacco Companies

20th Century Cigarette Cards Show India As Seen By British Tobacco Companies

Back in the mid-19th century, all smokers who would buy a packet of cigarettes were greeted with the premium of a tobacco or cigarette card enclosed in the packaging itself, typically with an illustration pasted upon one side and an advertisement on the other. Sportsmen and actors featured with their names, the ‘sports alphabet series’ marked each letter with a particular game or sport, and the ‘birds’ or ‘fish’ or ‘hunting series’ were creative in their simplicity, while the ‘how to swim’ or ‘heroic deeds’ ones were more fascinating topics to choose. And since all these came in a set or series of 25, 50 or more, they were highly coveted collections, spurring brand loyalty in order to collect them all. Further, what can be looked at as a vintage version of Pokemon or baseball cards, they were traded too.

All those who have bought a pack of cigarettes today might be wondering: what happened to these neat card collections and their production? While their popularity was on an all-time high at the start of the 20th century, the 1950s saw their appeal dwindle, putting an end to them. Still, luckily for us, an extensive collection of over 1,25,000 individual cigarette cards exists today, and the collectors describe it as “The height of cigarette card popularity occurred in the early decades of the 20th century, when tobacco companies around the world issued card sets in an encyclopedic range of subjects. After a slump during the First World War, popularity resumed, with new emphasis on film stars, sports, and military topics. Plants, animals, and monuments of the world remained perennially favorite themes.”

With over 3,000 complete sets, the New York Public Library holds a vast digital archive showcasing an international collection of various tobacco cards, including companies across the world. An endowment provided by bibliophile George Arents (1875 to 1960) kept this collection alive, with its curators having acquired most of the cards in the 1960s and onward. Not only giving us an insight into the tobacco industry’s incentivisation schemes, this collection acts as a window into history, where collections reflected a certain time, political and war climate, social understanding and so on. As the Library says it, “In addition to literature and artworks, the tobacco collection’s scope has come to encompass a wide range of visual materials and printed ephemera associated with that commodity.”

As we searched this collection of over 1,25,000 digitally archived cigarette cards from across the world, we found three distinct sets pertaining to India. And as you can imagine, they’re all manufactured by British tobacco companies. From the ‘Indian Empire’ series, including ‘Bombay - The Port’, to the Indian Regiment series and Indian series, scroll on for a glimpse into the British Empire’s perspective of India through its tobacco companies’ cigarette cards.

The Indian Empire First Series

Issued by the Successors in the United Kingdom to the Westminster Tobacco Co. Ltd. London.

[See this entire series here.]