A history of trading cards and stickers

A history of trading cards and stickers

Giovanni Blandino Published on 7/10/2024

Ok, who remembers the thrill as a child of opening up a packet of stickers or cards, hoping to find that precise one you were missing? And that overwhelming feeling of happiness when you finally completed your album?

Image: ebay.it

Stickers and trading cards are still a magical phenomenon today: so simple, yet loved by the most avid collectors – and boys and girls all over the world too. But did you know that they have a history of brilliant ideas, technological innovation and unexpected stories behind them? And that in Modena in northern Italy there is an entire museum dedicated to their history?

Did you know, for example, that Louis XIV collected a sort of trading card as a child in 18th-century France? Or that the owner of the first French department store gave out cards to children for free to encourage their parents to return to his shop every week? And can you guess who first decided to put them in a packet?

Enjoy our magical history of trading cards and stickers!

What was the first ever collectible sticker?

Pinpointing the exact moment when sticker albums were first introduced is not easy. Today we could list various essential attributes that make a sticker a sticker: their small size, their arrangement in a series, their self-adhesive design and the option of collecting them in albums.

But that’s not the way it’s always been. For example, the first self-adhesive stickers only began to appear in the post-war period: in Italy, the first sticker album was the 1962-63 Panini football album. Before that, they were printed on card and mostly given out with purchases.

Horse-riding exercises produced by Italian printer Stefano della Bella. Image: gonnelli.it

If you define trading cards and stickers more broadly as collectible images, you can find a possible precursor back in the seventeenth century, at the court of the king of France, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV. Legend has it that as a child the king collected images of queens and court entertainers from all over Europe, printed in Italy by the eminent and hugely popular Florentine printer Stefano della Bella.

Collectible cards as a nineteenth-century marketing technique

It took a couple of centuries for collectible cards to be democratised, as the industrial revolution meant other sectors of the population started to enjoy greater levels of wellbeing. One of the trademark symbols of this new era was the department store: brightly lit shops with multiple storeys selling the widest possible assortment of goods. This is where the idea of collectible cards as a promotional tool originated. Nowadays, we’d describe it as marketing.

One of the picture cards produced by the Paris department store Au Bon Marché, 1900. Image: ebay.com

To be precise, the cards were first produced by the original department store, Au Bon Marché in Paris. In 1867, its owner had a brainwave: he decided to give out a beautiful printed card to children every Thursday (he handed them out himself at the checkout) with a different design every week, to encourage families to return to the shop. The cards depicted subjects like animals, places and cathedrals.

A new printing technique: chromolithography

Another boost to the new fashion for collectible cards came from an innovative printing technique that simplified the production of multicolour prints: chromolithography. This new technique, patented in France in 1837, allowed many colours to be added to designs much more quickly and easily than the existing colour printing methods, and with a wider and brighter range of hues.

Two- and three-colour chromolithographs from 1893. Image: en.wikipedia.org

The technique is based on lithography, invented in the late eighteenth century by the Austrian monk Aloys Senefelder [we discussed lithography in detail here, if you fancy trying it at home]. It requires a very porous and smooth limestone (the term ‘lithography’ is derived from ‘lithos’, which means ‘stone’ in Greek). A design is drawn on the stone using a grease pencil, before being treated with a acid solution that, among other things, raises the design higher above the surface. The stone is then wetted and ink is applied using a roller, which only sticks to the parts with the design. When a sheet of paper is pressed onto the stone, the image is transferred onto it.

Chromolithographs require a different block for each colour you wish to add to the print. This rather laborious task was revolutionary at the time, and meant oil, tempera or watercolour paintings could be mass-reproduced  in up to 30 different colours.

The world’s biggest and oldest collection of picture cards: the Liebig trading cards

In the nineteenth century, one company in particular made very smart use of picture cards and the new opportunities provided by chromolithography: the German firm Liebig. In 1872, the founder of the company, which produced a meat extract in cube and liquid form, had a brilliant idea: combine sales of the product with a series of large, collectible trading cards.

Some of the incredible Liebig trading cards from the early twentieth century. Images: dpma.de; booklooker.de

Liebig cards were produced almost continuously between 1872 and 1975, in a total of 1,871 series, making them the largest collection of trading cards in the world. They covered a vast array of topics: the first series – now extremely rare and of inestimable value – depicted scenes from the Liebig factory, but there were also cards dedicated to sport, global cities, children’s games, traditional costumes, dances, boats, inventions, and so on and so forth. Liebig cards provided a colourful window onto the world that collectors found impossible to resist.

Interestingly, until the early twentieth century, each Liebig card also included the brand’s meat extract somewhere within the scene.

Packeted stickers: the Panini brothers’ brainwave

Until the mid-twentieth century, picture cards were therefore used exclusively to accompany other products and encourage people to buy and use them. But then another great idea launched the start of another era in their history.

This time, it all happened in Italy. In 1961, four printing company-owning brothers from Modena – the Panini brothers – had a lightbulb moment: why not make picture cards a collector’s item in their own right? They put four cards in a paper envelope – the now ubiquitous packet – and began selling them. The new product was incredibly successful.

One of the first albums of cards produced by Panini. Image: facebook.com

In no time at all, Panini had sold over three million packets of cards. In 1961 they launched their first album of football trading cards, and 1970 saw the first international edition dedicated to the football World Cup. The Panini brothers had turned something costing a few coppers into a multimillion-pound business, and created a new craze at the same time!

The Museo della Figurina in Modena

There’s a museum in the Panini brothers’ hometown of Modena that describes collectible cards and stickers’ long and fascinating history.

The Museo della Figurina is based on the private collection of Giuseppe Panini, one of the firm’s founders, who decided to donate his precious cards and stickers (both Panini-branded and others) to the city.

The Museo della Figurina in Modena. Image: fmav.org

This one-of-a-kind museum opened in 2006, and has a huge collection of over 500,000 small prints ranging from the nineteenth century to the present day. It also narrates the history of the materials and printing techniques used to produce the stickers and cards. In addition, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions, events, workshops, distance-learning materials and much more besides.

Trading cards and stickers today

With the next innovation in the world of cards and stickers surely only just around the corner, they certainly do not seem at risk of disappearing. Children of all ages remain busy filling albums of all types and on every conceivable subject, and they are still an object of desire for many collectors.

3D cards. Image: wired.it

There are reusable albums, 3D and augmented reality cards, and digital stickers. Sticker albums can teach you about the world or immerse you in films, literary sagas and cartoons. In short, trading cards have not lost either their magic or their collectibility.

We’ve got one last story to end with. Have you ever found yourself searching for an unobtainable card or sticker? In 1930s Italy, a competition with a car as a prize for completing a card album linked to Buitoni and Perugina was shut down by the government when it turned out one of the figures depicting the fearsome Saladino was almost impossible to find.