Originally intended as ‘stiffeners’ for the flimsy paper packets that, during the late 19th century, ready-made cigarettes were then sold in, ‘cigarette cards’ became one of the first collectibles available to the masses.
At first nothing more than plain pieces of cardboard that later carried printed advertisements for the tobacco companies themselves, cigarette cards achieved popularity at the turn of the century when astute marketeers hit on the idea of establishing brand loyalty – and increased sales – by placing inside each cigarette packet a single card from a series of perhaps 25.
Before the First World War, the cards usually depicted images of Actresses, Flowers or Architecture, with a brief description of the subject on the reverse side. Used as propaganda tools during the WW1, cigarette cards came into their own between the wars. Up until 1939 and the outbreak of WW II, when they were finally discontinued due to paper shortages, there were up to 50 cards to each complete set.
Although the card themes covered a staggering 45,000 topics featuring every conceivable subject, from Bridges, Alpine flowers, cats, dogs, trees, fish and ships, none of them included diving.
During the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, the legendary British Diving Company, Siebe, Gorman & Co., had become acknowledged world leaders in underwater technology, due, in no small part to the visionary efforts of Managing Director, Sir Robert H Davis, whose book, ‘Deep Diving and Submarine Operations’, was then considered to be one of the world’s most authoritative works on diving.
Presumably because of strong lobbying by Siebe, Gorman & Co., the British tobacco giant, John Player & Son, decided, in the 1930’s, to produce a set of cigarette cards given over to diving and using, for illustrations, many of the monochrome photographs and prints contained in Sir Robert Davis’ book.
Regrettably the outbreak of World War II interfered with their plans and the colour plates for the cigarette cards languished in their cellars. At some point after WW II, an unknown person – with little apparent knowledge of the advances that had taken place in diving – ‘updated’ the information on the obverse side of some of the cards; perhaps in preparation for a re-launch of a proven marketing ploy.
But cigarette cards had run their course and the plates remained unused until the rights were acquired by a company specialising in collectibles.
In light of our greater knowledge of diving, it’s tempting to laugh at the bulky images, the archaic equipment and the suggestion that divers who, “could dive effectively to depths in excess of 33 feet (10-metres)”, were a breed apart. But as an encapsulated slice of diving history, these cards represent a past in which those who dived were truly remarkable pioneers.