In the 1800s, cigarette companies figured out the surefire way to pull in customers: providing racy pin-up girl cards for every cigarette coupon they traded in.
A 1954 LIFE Magazine article explains the 19th century craze. The article series “Speaking of Pictures” used to run in LIFE Magazine and featured exciting images with short explanations about their historical context.
The article series always used a two-page spread , knowing that large images would pull in readers. Yes, even before the lolcats and gifs of the internet, publishers knew that big images and few words grab readers’ attention.
In the July 26th, 1954 twenty-cent edition, LIFE delved into the world of collector items by presenting an article called “Speaking of Pictures…Cigaret cards were 1880’s pin-ups.”
The image features a young girl in a sailor shirt, surrounded by sporting supplies. The text below reads (using the older spelling of “cigarette”):
“In the late 1880s the racy gallery shown here was a national favorite. The American pastime was saving cigaret coupons and exchanging them for gaudy picture cards put out by tobacco companies. Today, all but forgotten, this album is a collectors’ item. It is reproduced from copy owned by Charles Lowenson, a New Yorker who has been collecting cigaret cards for 68 of his 78 years. Titled Sporting Girls, the gallery is also a quaint reminder of an era when cheesecake was more decorative than daring.”
Cigarette ads saturated the advertising market in the early- and mid-1800s, so the ads had to work to stand out. The pin-up cards did just that.
To understand the reasoning behind a pin-up series of cards, you just need to look at the smoker consumer base before the 1950s:
A collection of five of these cards recently sold in auction for $565
If you told a person from the 1950s that cigarettes could kill, they would probably laugh in your face.
Only one thing held back the consumer base, which was gender. In America at this time, only men could smoke in proper company, and it was seen as unladylike for a woman to smoke.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, with the help of a man named Edward Bernays, that the combination of the Women’s Movement and advertising bridged the consumer gap by promoting the freedom and independence of smoking for women.
This gives some insight as to why cigarette cards featured these lovely ladies. Smoking was still largely a man’s activity, and especially in the 1880s, there would have been less than one percent of women smokers.
As a result, cigarette companies had to work hard to figure out how to make less than half its citizens smoke as much as possible, and by putting coupons in every smoke pack, they ensured that men would trade them in for provocative images. After all, the motto “sex sells” still applied back in the day.