Artist Trading Cards: A Brief History

History: Miniature art has a long history. Small art cards were all the rage in the 16th century. Most were portraits & were sold, not traded or given away. They were the first wallet "photos." Men would have nudes painted of their mistresses on art cards (probably without their wives knowing), usually by the same artist who created the larger family portraits of their wives & children.

In the 1700's, the French artists were the first to come up with the idea of advertisements on the backs of the art cards. During the Impressionist Age (1850-1860), artists traded cards among themselves to study each other's style & techniques. They also traded or sold the art cards as necessary for supplies, food, & lodging.

In 1887, "baseball" cards started to appear. These early cards are now very rare, & it is uncertain what they were made of. They were not mass produced until the golden years of baseball (1902 - 1935). Cards produced during this time were usually sold with bubble gum, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, baking soda, and cracker jacks.

During World War II, a shortage of paper curtailed the production of advertising trading cards. After the war, several companies produced baseball and non-baseball trading cards between 1950 and 1990, most notably the Topps Chewing Gum Company & DC comics, not to mention the ubiquitous Pokémon merchandising that began in the mid 90’s (a brain child of the infamous Japanese firm, Nintendo).

During a recent trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2012), I saw a quilt made of “silkies.” From the text on the wall by the display, I learned:

“In the late 19th century, tobacco companies developed the cigarette trading card—a premium inserted into packs to entice customers to collect a complete series. Employing new color lithography, the vibrant cards featured popular content, & American Indian themes were common. By the early 20th Century, companies seeking to broaden their consumer bases pursued the as yet untapped female market with ‘silkies.’ Silkies were collectibles printed on silk bearing motifs identical to their paper predecessors.”

On display was a “silkie” issued by the British American Tobacco Company, c.1930, which was a reissue of one of Alan & Ginter’s s early trading cards, “Celebrated American Indian Chiefs, 1888.”  From a web site, I also learned: “John Allen and Major Ginter were the founders of Allen & Ginter, a tobacco manufacturing company. In 1875, they started the first tobacco trading cards. These early cards featured Baseball players, Indian Chiefs, & Boxers. Later sets would have famous actresses and movies stars. Other sports were also represented, specifically Cricket & Football. John Allen & Major Ginter created over 80 sets of Allen & Ginter Baseball Cards during 1885-1890. The 1888 Allen & Ginter Set features baseball player Joseph Mulvey. Mulvey, a third baseman, played 12 seasons in the MLB. A vintage Mulvey now sells for over $1000.”

A Personal Note: When my mother left home to go to the University of Colorado in 1935, Grandmother gave away Mom’s treasured collection of early baseball cards because she thought Mom had "outgrown them." Needless to say, Mom was devastated. I would imagine the collection, had it remained in the family, would be worth a small fortune today.

Artist Trading Cards (ATC’s):  In the late 20th Century, the artist M. Vänçi Stirnemann is credited with having the "first" Artist Trading Card (ATC) exhibition, where he displayed 1,200 cards he had produced at his bookstore/gallery in Zürich, Switzerland, April 23-May 17, 1997. Stirnemann, on the last day of the show, allowed anyone who created a hand-made ATC to trade it for any card displayed in the show. In collaboration with Cat Schick, he has been promoting the idea ever since. In September 1997, Don Mabie (a.k.a., Chuck Stake) brought the first ATC Session to Calgary, Canada, at the New Gallery. In the last 10 years, ATC’s sessions spread world wide, & many trading groups can be found on the web.

Collaborative /Cultural /Conceptual /Performance Art: ATC's are a conceptual & performance art form using any medium or technique: collage, rubber stamping, painting, sewing, drawing, weaving, found images, screen printing, fine-lettering techniques xerography, photography, metal work, paper folding (origami), & digital imaging. The ATC's can be originals (one of a kind), a series (each made separately, but designed to look alike), or short-run editions (identical, usually printed digitally), but all are, most importantly, self-produced. If the trading cards are part of a limited series, they are ordinarily labeled as a series & are numbered (1/10; 2/10; 3/10; etc.)

How to Make ATC’s: ATC’s are miniature works of art (2½" by 3½ " or 64 by 89 mm), created on heavy paper or any stiff backing material (as long as the material is at least as heavy as card stock but thin enough to insert into a standard plastic trading card sleeve). Some cards are now being created that "violate" the thickness requirement. The back of each card usually includes the date, the artist's signature or chop, & any contact information the artist wants to give. It is interesting for collectors to know the card's origin: city, state, & country. Many artists create ATC's with 3-D features: windows, folds, multiple pages, pop-ups, sliding panels, moving parts, hidden messages, & secret treasures.  These thicker, more three-dimensional ATC's can be stored in special boxes & containers, rather than the traditional baseball card display pages.

Everybody Is an Artist: Anybody can make ATC's. The idea is that you trade your hand-made cards with other people who produce cards, either at Trading Sessions or whenever you meet other people in person to trade. The meeting in person to trade is essential to the concept of ATC's. It is O.K. to trade by mail or to participate in editions, but the main purpose of this performance is the trading session and the personal meeting. I made my first ATC for Winter Solstice, in 2004, and have been creating cards to trade for the last six years.

Art Cards: Sell or Trade? Purists say it is not about the money. Participants in trading sessions should not be charged any fees: the point of the project is the exchange of cards as well as the in-person or by mail exchange of ideas. The process of "trading" is central to the idea of ATC's. Interaction between artists is integral to the production /performance /exchange aspect of the art, and, by definition (it's right in the name), ATC's should not be sold. Thus, size restriction, sometimes thickness, artist contact information, and the "free" in-person exchange are the only "suggested" boundaries. Of course, there is now a collector aspect to trading cards, which is called ACEO (Art Cards, Editions and Originals). Some artists make their cards available to the public, usually at a very affordable price.

Join the Fun: The Art-4-Art Trading Session meets the third Saturday of every month at 1 p.m. in the temporary location of the Lyons Regional Library, 405 Main Street, Lyons, Colorado. Make 9 or 10 cards to trade. Keep one for yourself.

Founder Art-4-Art Trading Session: We are indebted to our local librarian, Merlyn Williams, who started our group  in Lyons, Colorado, in 2003.

More Information: Use your favorite search engine to find out more about ATC’s. Here is the link to the artist M. Vänçi Stirnemann’s web page:

Sources: Information compiled from various sources on the Internet including; and from: Expression Magazine; an art show at the Los Angeles County Museum in 2012; and the books, Artist Trading Card Workshop by Bernie Berlin; and Artist Trading Cards: An Anthology of ATC's, a Somerset Studio® Publication.

Published as a service  to the Lyons Regional Library by:

The Reenchantment Press

 Editor & Publisher:

Phyllis J. O’Rourke, M.A.

P.O. Box 892

Lyons, Colorado 80540

©2016 A More Light Publication