Duke's Cigarette Card Coins

The New York Public Library has launched a new website for its ample collection of digital images. There is a variety of material on there that will be of interest to numismatists, although there are no actual coins or medals as the NYPL sold off its numismatic collection in a 1982 Bowers & Ruddy auction. The library does retain some incidental paper money in its Manuscripts and Archives Division. One of the more interesting pieces of coin-related ephemera that their digitization efforts have turned up is a curious, and often insensitive, series of cigarette cards that depict various national types and coins. Cigarette cards were small chromolithographed prints that tobacco companies used to stiffen their packaging and advertise their brand. They were also meant to encourage loyalty by  getting consumers to trade and collect cards in an attempt to own the complete series, which often featured actors, athletes, historical personages, and sundry exotic people and locations. Perhaps most famously, the earliest baseball cards were actually cigarette cards. The “Coins of all Nations” series was printed in 1889 by Knapp & Co. of New York for Duke’s Cigarettes, which was based out of Durham, North Carolina.

Duke University Library
Assorted Duke’s cigarette brands and cartons, Duke University Library



The complete set included 50 cards that measure 3.7 cm x 6.7 cm, and they all have the same reverse (left). The coin illustrations seem more or less accurate, and the exchange value of each is enumerated in U.S. currency. The depictions of the various national types, though, are rather more problematic, and often veer into racist caricature. The cards were produced during an age of imperialism when many misguided ideas about race held great sway. The cards clearly trade in stereotypes, with an inebriated Irishman and a Swiss girl carrying wheels of cheese, amongst other rather harmless supposed national proclivities. The depictions of non-white national characteristics are rather more vicious as you’ll see with a look through the slideshow.

Sandwich IslandsOne of the more negative representations was the card for the Sandwich Islands. This was a dated designation for what in 1889 was the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, which was a constitutional monarchy that had, as indicated, issued its own silver coinage. The illustration is a strange mix of race-based presumption (very dark skin), sexualization, and implied foolishness or vanity (clothes and mirror). It’s also a good gauge of prevailing ideas about Native Hawaiians, ones that would help enable the United States’ takeover of the islands just a few years later. While some of the caricatures are undoubtedly offensive to the modern eye, they are also an apt reflection of the way that Americans perceived other people around the world during the late nineteenth century.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that this is not quite the complete set. Either the digitizers at the NYPL missed a few cards or their set is incomplete, as Turkey and Venezuela are missing. If someone happens to have either of those, please just send them along and I’ll add them to the post. Thanks!

Matthew Wittmann