Trading cards are experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity thanks to the pandemic, but did you know that this collectible originated in the 1800s as “cigarette cards”? And did you know that the entire concept of collecting cards emerged from Victorian-era sentimentality and a fascination with new-fangled color printing?

The modern obsession with Pokémon cards, sports cards, and even digital cards is a far cry from the humble beginnings of “The Hobby.” Follow along with us for a closer examination of the history and the evolution of trading cards – plus a look at what the future may hold! 

Origin of Trade Cards

The original “trade cards” were advertising cards that were packaged with cigarettes for the purpose of stiffening the packaging. In the 1860s, shortly after baseball’s inception as a professional sport, baseball cards were printed, usually being sold in packets of candy or tobacco products.

In the 1870s and early 1900s, the popularization of “color lithography” or multi-color printing, led to the increased popularity of the “trade card.” Companies of all kinds would insert these cards into product packaging as a prize. The designs on the cards were often not product-related, but were humorous or beautiful, depending on the perceived tastes of the consumer.

Valued for their vibrant, full-color imagery, the public began to collect these cards, storing their collections in scrapbooks and albums. People would often trade with each other to obtain a complete set, hence the origin of their name. These cards faded in popularity as color printing became more common, but the concept of collecting trading cards was born.

Evolution of Sports Cards

In the 1930s, companies began to print biographies on baseball cards, and they came with packs of bubble gum. In 1950, Topps Chewing Gum Inc. began inserting trading cards into their packaging. These cards depicted TV and movie stars, football players, and big game hunters. In 1952, Topps began producing the sports trading cards that we know today, which included a player biography, records, and other statistics. This original set – which contains the rookie card for Mickey Mantle – is among the most valuable of all time. 

In the 1980s, sports cards started to be viewed as valuable collectible items. The monetary worth of earlier cards – many of which had been tossed away by mothers of college kids or had been destroyed after being stuffed into the spokes of a bicycle wheel – began to increase. As sports card collecting experienced a surge in popularity, companies produced more cards to meet demand. What’s more is that people began to regret the loss of their now-valuable childhood cards, so more people saved their collections in hopes of seeing an increase in value.

This overproduction of cards paired with an interest in preserving them led to most cards from the 1980s and 1990s being pretty much worthless today. Companies learned from their mistake, and today, they control the volume of cards produced to manufacture a sense of scarcity and drive up the value.

Introduction of Trading Card Games

The 1990s saw the introduction of something entirely new: the trading card game. In 1993, Wizards of the Coast released the first and most enduring trading card game, Magic: The Gathering. This game involves a combination of luck and skill, with two or more players who battle it out as powerful wizards called “Planeswalkers”. Each player’s deck of cards is comprised of their collection (or in some cases, derived from a limited pool of cards designated for a specific event). The “spells” that the players cast are determined by the cards they have available to them.

Also born in the 90s: Pokémon cards! Introduced in Japan in 1996 and the United States in 1998, the popularity of Pokémon cards have soared in recent years, and they are currently the most in-demand trading card out there. Although Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering are clear leaders when it comes to the genre of trading card games, many other well-known games have emerged, including KeyForge, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Game of Thrones: The Card Game, and Sorcerer. 

Trading Cards of Today

Today, trading cards of all kinds are referred to as “the baseball card industry,” and collectors refer to card collecting as “The Hobby.” Trading cards have the most value when they are officially graded – or ranked on their condition – with 1 being “poor” and 10 being “gem mint.” The most popular grading services are provided by Beckett and PSA

Lately, “The Hobby” has been experiencing a huge resurgence – mainly caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has caused their value to increase. During lockdown, many people took a renewed interest in trading cards, and there were millions more submissions for grading services than usual. The increased demand led to PSA temporarily hiking up its prices to keep things under control. The huge interest in collecting Pokémon cards has caused many stores to run out of them. Target stopped carrying the cards for a while after a fight erupted in a parking lot over Pokémon cards.
There are generally three types of people who are interested in trading cards. There are flippers who are in it for the money. They might thrift an unopened pack of cards and sell it online for a huge markup. There are also investors, who are interested in purchasing cards whose value will appreciate over time. And finally, there are collectors, who simply love to collect trading cards and enjoy the nostalgia and the feeling of accomplishment that collecting brings. 

Many collectors got their start during their childhood, but as prices rise, trading cards are in danger of becoming something that’s only for adults. It’s important that trading cards are still accessible to children so that this age-old hobby can be passed on to the next generation.

Also growing in popularity is the emergence of trading card influencers. YouTubers such as Leon Hart, Poke Rev, and Randolph Pokémon are posting videos of them opening packs of Pokémon cards and sharing their finds with their followers. Charlie Parrino of JustRipIt sells shares of unopened, sealed vintage hobby packs and opens them in a live broadcast. Collectors seem to enjoy the thrill of seeing what an unopened pack of cards has inside!

The Future of Trading Cards

What does the future hold for trading cards? Virtual basketball cards have recently appeared on the scene and have been well received by fans. These digital cards feature “moments,” or floating digital cubes that feature a video highlight of a specific player. These are made possible by a technology called “blockchain,” which assigns each clip a certificate of ownership which cannot be copied or deleted. These moments sell for around $10-$20 each. 

Will these digital clips remain popular in the future? Will paper trading cards become a thing of the past, or will they endure for their novelty and for the tactile experience that print brings? Only time will tell!

Protection for Trading Cards (and More)

Whatever your preferred trading card genre, it’s important to protect your collection! Did you know that most homeowners insurance policies don’t cover or limit coverage for your collectible items? Collectibles Insurance Services provides affordable, specialized coverage for collections of all kinds. It only takes a few minutes to get a quote – so get yours started today!

The History of Collectible Trading Cards


About Collectibles Insurance Services

Collectibles Insurance Services has been protecting collections since 1966 and all coverage is provided by a carrier with a group rating of “A” (Excellent) by AM Best, the leading rating agency for the insurance industry.

Comprehensive coverage includes, but is not limited to: accidental breakage, burglary, fire, flood, loss in the mail, theft, natural disasters, and other causes of loss unless specifically excluded from the policy. Deductibles start at $0 for collector policies and we provide coverage for the market value of your collection for losses in excess of $50.

Additionally the protection extends At home and away, and we don't require collection itemization and serial number nor extensive paperwork and red tape.