This year we have awarded a number of stipends to researchers to visit us and use our collections, thanks to the generosity of The Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell Fund. Scholars and researchers from all over the world will be exploring all aspects of our collections and as part of the award we have asked them to contribute a blog post on the artefacts they found and the discoveries they have made. This is the first of these blogs, which will all be published on our website. This is from independent scholar Dr Rudmer Canjels from the Netherlands who examined our fascinating collection of cigarette cards.
Cigarette cards featuring film stars were once very popular to collect and are an important source for film research. These cards expand the reception of films and their stars beyond the screen and raise questions of celebrity, nationality, gender, and narrativity. I have for a long time been fascinated by cigarette cards and having been awarded The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum stipend I was able to visit the museum to research cigarette cards featuring film stars from British tobacco companies. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds a collection of hundreds of cigarette cards, mostly from the UK, some from the 1910s, many from the 1920s and an abundance of examples from the 1930s.
As American tobacco brands expanded their market into Britain around 1890, the practice of producing collectible cigarette cards to create consumer loyalty were slowly being copied by British rivals. Sports, women and the military would be in the coming decades the most popular subjects. Thus images of cricketers, stage actresses, military heroes, but also castles and abbeys or Shakespearean characters could be collected. Each collectible series usually consisted of 25 or 50 related subjects, but series of over 100 cards were also made; culminating in hundreds of new cards produced each year. It took until 1913 before the first card series solely featuring film stars was manufactured in Britain; the film star system was at that time just coming into being.
In the 1910s the stars first appeared in black and white photographs or colour drawings, but from the 1920s tinted and even hand-coloured series were also made.
The second British cigarette card series solely related to film, Wills' Cinema Stars from 1916, featured only female film stars. Out of the 25 cards there were 5 British actresses; the rest were active in the American film industry. Here are two examples from the set.
Stars from the 1927 Who’s Who in British Film (here showing the now largely forgotten Rex Davis) could be collected in two sizes.
In the 1930s the cinema cigarette cards had a variety of subjects and were much more than before tied to specific films. Albums, to collect the series, were produced as a novelty in the 1930s as ever more cinema related cigarette cards could be collected.
Researching cigarette cards at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum gave me an important opportunity to view many cards I had not been able to track down before on the internet. I also could now investigate the cards up close, view the back (often with biographical information on the star) and experience the vibrant colours, the embossed structure, and the flashy gold finish that have survived many years since they were collected.
For instance these cigarette cards are from the 1934 Moderne Schönheitsgalerie (Gallery of Modern Beauty) and are the most exquisite cards I have seen. Just look at the embossing pattern around Claudette Colbert (from the epic Cleopatra, 1934) or the smoking Marlene Dietrich (altering the original publicity photograph and obscuring her tie, making it less obvious she is wearing a man’s suit). Made by the Jewish cigarette company Garbaty in Nazi Germany, each of the 300 cards from this series is in full colour, has an embossed individual pattern and a varnished coat. There are a number of German and Dutch card sets in The Bill Douglas Cinema museum collections.
Many cards in the collection are very beautiful to look at and preserved in excellent condition, making it a joy to go through them and celebrate the (often forgotten) stars again. Of course not all cigarette brands infested much time or money in the design and actually produced rather mediocre and cheap card sets; however these often more worn out cards are an important part of the cinema cigarette card history too.
Because of my previous research on the production of international silent serials, I have developed a great love for American serials. To my surprise in the mid 1920s there were still quite a few serial stars turning up in the British cigarette cards, despite the lessened interest by the public in this worn out film form. Though her popularity had begun to wane, serial star Pearl White was still remembered in a 1920s set of Fox Stars from the British-American Tobacco Company.
While being in the archive I could also not resist looking at some other serial ephemera. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum has for instance a great collection of publicity photographs featuring Pearl White, the most famous serial queen.
My research on cigarette cards of cinema stars will continue after this very worthwhile visit and will culminate in an article focusing on the British 1920s and 1930s cards (and hopefully will become part of a bigger research on ephemeral media as well). Research on cinema cigarette cards will add to our knowledge of the emergence of particular promotional film structures, forms, and practices in Britain. It was an important time when the Hollywood star system and the feature film was taking shape and the film industry in Britain was responding to that. My research will show the role of media in British society, not through the primary text of the feature film, but through ephemeral media that helped to place the film star and a national film identity in society.