In the middle of the 20th century they were called bubble gum cards, but they could also be found in a box of cereal or a loaf of bread. The product really wasn’t that important to youngsters, but the colorful cardboard collector cards that came with it were.
Bubble gum cards ruled the world of a lot of adolescents in the 1950s and 1960s. Their colorful stiff-back images surged with everything from comic book heroes and television stars, to space ships and sleek automobiles. Pocket-sized treasures provided personal illustrations of Tarzan, Calamity Jane, Robin Hood, Zorro and lots of other exciting characters.
The bubble gum card had an ancestor in the cigarette card of the 1880s. Such cards helped protect a frail package of cigarettes initially but the public became fascinated with them. The content of these adult-oriented cards ranged from bike riders to burlesque performers, and from heroic dogs to women in professional occupations. By the 1890s, a card collector purchasing enough cigarettes could select from battle scenes, clipper ships, comic characters, presidential candidates, flowers, and both Roman and Greek goddesses.
Despite the fact that people collected millions of such cards and pasted them in their Victorian scrapbooks, their popularity and production faded as the 20th century bloomed.
There were exceptions though, and one of them was the Church and Dwight Company, makers of Arm and Hammer baking soda. They issued sparkling animal and wildlife cards as premiums well into the 20th century. Moreover their in-the-package method of distribution would be duplicated many times in the decades that followed. Some tobacco and candy companies also stubbornly continued to put cards in their products as well. Their offerings tended to include athletes, entertainers, and military leaders.
Amid the Depression years of the 1930s there was a surprising re-birth of premium cards and premium card collecting. This time the effort was clearly led by candy manufacturers, plus a few ambitious manufacturers of various types of chewing gum. Often the chewing gum companies of that era went with movie stars on their cards. Shelby Gum (of Shelby, Ohio) offered a one-cent package of Hollywood Picture Gum which came with a color picture and a fortune forecast.
Sometimes a fictional hero of the time, like the Lone Ranger, became the name of the product itself. By 1940 Lone Ranger Chewing Gum was being distributed nationwide. Those who purchased a package also got a nifty colored card featuring the Lone Ranger in action, very similar to the newspaper comic strips that were so popular at the time.
Similarly Superman was added to the chewing gum marketplace, and others followed almost directly from the newspaper’s Sunday Funnies section.
In the 1950s two giants of the card producing field, Topps and Bowman, produced an array of collector bubble gum cards even before they turned to the more eventful baseball cards. For a couple of generations lucky kids could go down to the grocery or drug store and grab a pack of bright pink bubble gum which included some pretty exciting cards as well.
For the record, bubble gum had been perfected from an earlier formula in the late 1920s by Walter Diemer. An employee of the Fleer Chewing Gum Company, Diemer used his talents to modernize prior chewing gum mixture so kids (and adults) could chew it and blow bubbles. Bubble gum was not fully marketed with color cards to protect the gum and entice youngsters until the early 1950s.
Elvis Presley’s very first bubble gum card set appeared in 1956. Other rock stars soon followed Elvis including Fabian and another set not surprisingly entitled, Hit Stars.
Early television spawned still another chapter in the life of bubble gum cards. Legends like Hopalong Cassidy rode from the big screen to the TV set into packages of Topps Gum as well. Then came hundreds of others including Gunsmoke’s James Arness on the number one card of TV Westerns set.
Bubble gum and its companion cards saw an ever-expanding audience into the 1960s, and a parade of personalities and television shows came with them. Meanwhile on another level the Topp’s company’s science fiction-themed Mars Attacks grabbed younger generations early in that decade. That particular comic-illustrated set of 55 depicting Martians who invade earth still retains a following among collectors.
At about the same time, a popular TV series, The Addams Family, sparked a set of spooky cards. By 1966 the tide of bubble gum cards included five sets starring television’s latest icons Batman and Robin. In 1967 the first Star Trek bubble gum-collector cards appeared on the market. Still others of the many TV show and movie-related cards of the 1960s went on to include the Planet of the Apes, Daktari, and The Monkees.
There were other bubble gum cards in the later decades of the 20th century, but the golden era had ended. Eventually manufacturers dropped the idea of including bubble gum in the packages entirely. They said it was cost saving, better preserved the cards inside, and nobody was chewing the pink stuff anyway.
Today examples of the original bubble gum cards remain classic illustrations of a remarkable but distant mid-20th century culture.