A Brief History of German Cards

Cigarette card collecting is almost unknown in Germany nowadays. Yet until the second world war, the Germans had a long tradition of collecting cigarette and trading cards. Even after the war, cigarette cards made a brief comeback, both in East and West Germany. However it was not on anything like the previous scale, and eventually they were banned in West Germany in 1955.

Before the first world war, cards were generally trading cards, with cigarette cards being few and far between. Actually the first pictures were not cards at all but rather were printed on the packaging. Stollwerk, a chocolate manufacturer in Cologne, was the first German company to put pictures on its products in 1840. Later, around 1860, the first "Picture and Photograph Chocolate" appeared, with pictures of portraits, buildings and landscapes printed on the wrapping. One series for example showed the building of Cologne cathedral. Various other series followed. However very few of these early pictures survive.

In1872 the Liebig company issued the first of its famous "Reklamebilder" (Advertising pictures). These were large format pictures, given away with the products. To stay ahead, Stollwerk produced high-quality pictures, often printed in a 12-colour process with competitions for original pictures which had prizes of up to 1000 Reichsmarks. In 1895 Stollwerk produced the first albums for collecting the pictures, which included explanatory text after 1897. The idea of collecting cards gradually caught on, and by the turn of the century, virtually every German product included collectable pictures. Cigarettes however were the exception. Until the first world war smoking was a luxury past time. If men smoked at all it was usually cigars or a pipe and woman generally didn’t smoke at all, at least not in public. Few cigarette cards are known from the time before 1920. Only a handful of sets are listed in Koeberich’s catalogue, as well as a patriotic booklet issued by the German branch of Waldorf-Astoria. No dates are given for the cards although the booklet was probably issued in the Winter of 1917/1918.

Greta Garbo from Salem's Gold Film pictures The first world war put a virtual stop to issuing pictures, with only two companies listed as issuing cards after 1916. It also changed the general attitude towards smoking. During the war, large numbers of cigarettes were handed out to the troops in the trenches and afterwards smoking was much more widely accepted as a result. The first series of cigarette cards listed after the war is "Dresden and Sachsen Switzerland" issued by Delta Cigarettes of Dresden in 1921. However this is listed as their fourth series, so the other three were presumably earlier, although no dates are given. Reemtsma of Hamburg-Bahrenfeld issued a series of 267 "Small Pictures" (Kleine Bilder) in 1923. These pictures were issued printed on the inside of the packet lids as well as in card format.

Reemtsma also introduced the idea of picture coupons. Instead of including cards in the packets, they contained numbered coupons. When a set of coupons had been collected, they could be sent off to the "Cigaretten Bilderdienst" (Cigarette picture service) in exchange for a set of pictures. This had several advantages for collectors. Firstly, they always got a set of mint pictures. Because they were no longer restricted by the size of the packet, large format pictures were possible. Several series of pictures were in print at the same time, so one could also choose which series one wanted. This also meant you had time to save up for a complete set and didn’t get left with half a set of cards when the ones in the packets were changed. Sometimes millions of copies of a set were printed. In fact such was Reemtsma's output that despite having produced only 22 such sets, they probably account for about 90% of the cards on offer nowadays.

Albums for the pictures were published which were much more elaborate than the usual English ones. They took the form of books published without pictures, and the cigarette pictures were stuck in to provide the illustrations. Over a period of time the completed albums built up into a large-scale reference work. It was a cheap way of building up a home library which everyone could afford.

The ship of the line Deutschland from Lloyd's Flottenbilder. The rise to power of the NSDAP in 1933 brought an assortment of picture series with corresponding themes such as Germany Awakens, Fight for the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, etc. as well as the more conventional subjects. Possibly these sets were intended simply as a celebration of what was perceived as a new beginning after the hyper-inflation and depression of the 1920s. However the NSDAP apparently had a strong anti-smoking policy and it may also be that the cigarette companies were trying to appear pro-NSDAP to secure their own existence.

The outbreak of world war two in 1939 once again put a virtual stop to the issuing of pictures. After 1940 it was largely newspaper companies which issued new pictures. Reemtsma’s anti-British series Raubstaat England (Robber State England) accounted for a lot of the wartime issues of cigarette pictures with the 300,000th album being printed in 1941. According to Koeberich, the last coupons were exchanged in 1943.

After the war, cigarette cards were never issued again on a large scale. Most Germans associate post-war card collecting with "margarine cards" - large format pictures given away with margarine. Obviously the cost of issuing these was too high as in 1954 the margarine industry agreed among themselves to issue no further cards. In 1955 the West German government banned cigarette cards although Austria cigarettes of Munich appears to have issued a set of animal pictures in 1956. They were issued until 1957 in East Germany. In that year it was decided in the west that trading cards were allowed in principle providing they carried advertizing. Nevertheless, most companies were reluctant to issue pictures until the 1970s. However the quality of these modern pictures is low compared with the earlier ones.

Compared with British sets, German sets of cards tend to be enormous. German sets often contain several hundred pictures and a few sets contained over 1000 pictures. (As an exception Aurelia Cigarettes of Dresden issued a set with only 40 pictures, interestingly called "German Humour"). Whereas British sets concentrate on a few particularly interesting aspects of a subject, German sets try to give the subject blanket coverage.

Anyone collecting cigarette cards and pictures in Germany nowadays will find that most cards on offer are pictures stuck in albums and that most of those will be Reemtsma series. Germans are quite happy to pay high prices for a set of pictures stuck in an album. The Reemtsma pictures in particular were produced to be stuck in albums and so have little if any explanatory text on the back, the text being in the albums. It seems that the loss of value for being stuck in an album is made up for by the increase in value by knowing what the picture is supposed to depict. In any case it fits the Germans' orderly nature to have cards neatly stuck in an album rather than being left untidily loose. However if one searches a little, it is possible to find seperate cards, more to the British and American taste, as well as unused albums. Often one encounters complete sets of Reemtsma pictures (usually of the 1936 Olympic games) still in their original wrappers.

An earlier version of this article submitted by me appears in