The First of Many: Jefferson Burdick Introduced the First Card Catalog in 1939

By George Vrechek

Jefferson Burdick (1900-63) started the first newsletter for card collectors, originated the classification system for cards and donated his 306,353-card collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Not surprisingly, his first attempt at publishing a catalog for collectable cards was superb.

The cover for The United States Card Collectors Catalog from 1939.

Many readers are familiar with Burdick’s 1960 The American Card Catalog. Burdick was what you would call a regular guy. He published a catalog every seven years and a newsletter every other month without fail. In their uncontrollable urge to collect and organize, modern collectors have made Burdick’s catalogs collectables themselves.

Every seven years
Burdick published catalogs in 1939, 1946, 1953 (with an updated re-printing in 1956) and 1960. The 1939 catalog was called The United States Card Collectors Catalog; all subsequent catalogs were called The American Card Catalog, Burdick feeling that Canada, Central, and South America should be included in the fold (and potential subscribers).

Following Burdick’s death, Woody Gelman continued the catalog one more time with a 1967 effort. Thereafter, catalogs morphed into Bert Sugar’s The Sports Collectors Bible, Beckett & Eckes’ The Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide, and SCD’s Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, as well as other publications over the years. Burdick’s catalogs were more plentiful with each successive edition.

I’ve picked up the 1946, 1953, 1956 and 1960 versions, but I had never come across the 1939 issue. Only 500 catalogs were printed in 1939, versus 1,250 in 1946, 1,400 in 1953 and 3,000 in 1960. The late Lionel Carter had a 1939 catalog around the house someplace, but he could never find it for me. Finally, avid collector Leon Luckey surfaced with a 1939 catalog. Leon moderates the Net54baseball.com forums and generously let me borrow the catalog for a few weeks to study Burdick’s first effort.

First impressions
I had imagined the 1939 catalog as an extended version of Burdick’s newsletters, Card

Jefferson Burdick, the father of card collecting.

Collectors Bulletin (CCB), with home-made mimeographed printing and binding. Burdick used the CCB to update readers with additions and changes to card sets, and first announced the catalog idea to his subscribers in September 1938. The Burdick catalogs did not include checklists of cards within sets. Cards were cheap no matter who was on the card. If one particular card was unusually rare, Burdick would mention it separately, but such occasions were rarer than the cards. Thus all baseball gum card sets could be listed on a page or two and then proceed to postcards, silks, buttons and everything else under the sport and non-sport suns.

The 1939 catalog was much more of a professional and thorough effort than I had imagined based on reading Burdick’s apologies about catalog oversights and errors in subsequent CCBs. The catalog was 6-by-9 inches, typeset and bound with three small fasteners inserted through punched holes.

Burdick reported in 1946 that the 1939 catalog had been a custom job that couldn’t be easily duplicated: “We were unable to find anyone who could punch those binding holes and we personally had to carry all of those catalogs 3½ miles where we could drill the holes on a drill press using a special jig which we made, and then inserted them in the binders ourselves.” (To be clear, “ourselves” likely being Burdick and himself.) The catalog was a top-notch assemblage of as much information as possible about card sets. You could see the enthusiastic effort in Burdick’s work. His significant contributions were in organizing it all, taking the initiative in sharing information and reporting prices.

Burdick’s introduction
Burdick was an efficient writer, covering most of what he wanted to say in just the first six pages. Burdick begins with the catalog’s only one-page illustration of several cigarette cards and provides an index for the 90-plus pages of content: Advertising cards, blankets, bread cards, cigar bands, cigarette cards, candy and gum cards, flannels, foreign cards, greeting cards, photographs, post cards, silks, tickets, trade cards and more.

Burdick starts with some background: “The collecting of cards began soon after the end of the Civil War when manufacturers and tradesmen, as a means of advertising, had cards printed calling attention to their wares and services … During the eighties card collecting received a real impetus when manufacturers began inserting a small souvenir picture card in each package of cigarettes.”

Burdick refers back to the good old days. In this case, Burdick’s good old days were prior to 1915 when tobacco manufacturers flooded the market with insert cards that were all but forgotten by 1939, except by “only a few collectors who kept (collecting) alive, as best they could, in the ensuing years.”

Hobbies and CCB
Burdick thanks O.C. Lightner’s Hobbies Magazine for allowing him to publish several articles on cigarette cards starting in December 1935. Burdick’s Hobbies articles generated sufficient interest for him to begin publishing Card Collectors Bulletin. He explained that “the big need seemed to be for some tabulation and description of these many sets and for the establishment of prices and values. This problem was attacked by issuing a series of eight Card Collectors Bulletins at various intervals in 1937 and 1938.” The catalog was an extension of what Burdick started in the CCBs. Burdick wrote, “It is intended to cover the entire card field as completely as possible. No listing of the old cards will be entirely complete and accurate.”

Prices

The only illustration in the 1939 catalog was this one page showing a variety of tobacco cards.

One of the big reasons for buying the catalog would be to get an idea of prices. Burdick wrote, “The fixing of card values is a difficult matter. The present prices are based on … supply and demand as they have been noted in many transactions, and after consultation with many collectors and dealers. It is impossible, of course, to satisfy every one in the matter of prices. Some seem to think they should start at 5 cents and with the sky the limit. Others favor 1 cent for everything. Both, obviously, are not correct.” Obviously! He laments that silly prices, like $1, have been paid for cards that should be really only worth pennies. He also describes how lots of cards should be discounted from the per card prices.

Condition
Burdick was a bit more persnickety than I had imagined, describing the importance of condition as follows: “Condition must be considered in pricing cards. Many are found with creases, stains, tears, tack holes and other defacings (he must have peeked at my collection) to such an extent that they are almost valueless. The prices in this catalog are for specimens in good to perfect condition. As in all collecting, this is often a matter of personal opinion.”

Burdick’s descriptions of “good” and “perfect” may not be that far from today’s standards. He basically thought cards in decent shape should all run about the same price.

Finding cards
Based on his own experience, Burdick advises readers, “Very few of the cards listed in this catalog can be obtained by writing to the firms which issued or printed them … such writing is an absolute waste of time … As far as known, there are no exclusive card dealers, but all dealers in antiques, old books, curios, and Americaniana should be considered card dealers.”

Burdick encourages the reader to chase the cards wherever they can be found. “Old cards are bits of history, and share in the love which all Americans hold for reminiscences of years gone by,” he wrote.

Card classification
Burdick started his system of classifying cards by grouping like card issues with certain series of numbers, listing the known sets alphabetically and then assigning the sets numbers. This system proved difficult to maintain in later catalogs. To Burdick’s surprise, old card sets kept coming out of attics and floorboards and more room and information was needed to list additional sets.

However, it didn’t take Burdick long to list sets. Page 40 lists all 19th century tobacco sports issues very efficiently, for instance:

  • 515 Baseball Teams (16) Fatima 10 cents
  • 516 Baseball Folders (50) Mecca 3 cents
  • 517 Baseball Folders Hassan triple folders 3 cents
  • 520 Baseball Series gold bordered (400) 2 cents
  • 521 Baseball Series white borders  2 cents
  • 525 BB Players Old Mill 3 cents
  • 574 Champion Athletes and Prizefighters (50) Mecca 3 cents.

Recent gum issues weren’t much more of a problem with the following listed on page 63:

  • 276 Am and Nat. League Stars (32) George Miller 4 cents
  • 278 Batter Up (192) Nat Chicle 2 cents
  • 279 Big League 1933 Goudey (240) 2 cents
  • 280 Big League 1934 Goudey (96) 2 cents
  • 294 Play Ball (24) DeLong 4 cents
  • 296 Sport Kings (48) Goudey 2 cents.

The only set that managed a little more description was No. 286 Diamond Stars (108) National Chicle 2 cents and the notation: “Nos 1-84 originally with green backs were partly reprinted with later statistics and blue backs. 85-108 in blue backs only.” Bill Dickey and Hank Greenberg though were the same lousy 2 cents as Buddy Myer and Sparky Adams. If you wanted a checklist of the white-bordered set No. 521 (T206s), Burdick advised you to contact subscriber and advertiser Howard M. Myers.

Note that cards issued for 1 cent as recently as 1933 had rocketed up to 2 cents in the catalog. If the Buddy Myers and other commons in average condition had continued on this double-every-six-year pace, they’d go for $82 each today – the power of compounding. I guess price escalations may have actually slowed since 1939.

Advertisers
To help subsidize the catalog cost, Burdick solicited ads from CCBsubscribers. The last

The 1946, 1953 and 1960 editions of The American Card Catalog.

few pages of the catalog contained small ads from hobby pioneers: Lionel Carter, Charles Bray, John Wagner, Edward Golden, Howard M. Myers, A.O. Philipp, Donald Van Brakle, Howard Paul, E.L. Lancaster and H. Bruce Spencer. Burdick included his own ad seeking cards and subscribers. He even offers to pay more than the values shown in his own catalog “where my wants are few.” Antique and book dealers included ads, as well.

Financial results
Burdick let his readers in on everything through the CCB. In an August 1939, CCB he reported that 100 of the 500 copies had been sold. Additional copies were available for 50 cents. Burdick reported that expected catalog proceeds were going to run only about $300. Printing cost $120, binders and envelopes $35, postage $50 and advertising $90.

It looked like Burdick might eventually have a dollar or two left over, if he was lucky.
Burdick finally sold the last of the 1939 catalogs in 1945. A CCB editorial by Donald Van Brakle lauded Burdick for his “intellectual honesty … and single-minded devotion to this hobby to the exclusion of personal gain.” Surprisingly, Burdick also reported receiving some negative feedback from subscribers complaining about one small thing or the other.

Future catalogs
The final catalog page stated, “This catalog is in loose leaf form so that, where desirable, sheets may be replaced or new sheets inserted. Such revision is planned for yearly, and any such sheets will be distributed as part of the Card Collectors Bulletin.”

Burdick issued a 20-page supplement in July 1940, and smaller supplements in October 1941, and October 1942, but with the war going on, another catalog didn’t come out until 1946, thus starting the every seven-year sequence.

I checked subsequent catalogs to see how much of the 1939 catalog had been reused. While the appearance, size and topics remained similar in later catalogs, Burdick rewrote just about everything.

The most significant change in 1946 was adding letter designations and changing the set numbers. Set  No. 521 became T206. The 1933 Goudey set No. 279 became R319, etc.

The 1939 and 1946 catalogs only acknowledged Burdick’s involvement.

The 1953 catalog included Charles Bray, Gene DeNardo and Woody Gelman. The 1960 catalog mentions the same gang plus Buck Barker, Preston Orem and Edwin Payne. The hobby was growing; those 2-cent cards were long gone.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be reached at vrechek@ameritech.net.

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