Baines Football Cards: the Victorian Panini

Football fans tend to be hoarders. Paul Brown uncovers the origins of this most pervasive of characteristics.

As a football fan it’s highly likely that at some point in your life you’ve collected football cards or stickers. For many of us it will have been Panini stickers, and for today’s kids it’s all about Topps Match Attax. But the addictive combination of football and collecting has been around for more than 120 years, and young Victorian football fans just couldn’t get enough of Baines Football Cards.

John Baines began making football cards in Bradford in the mid-1880s. He claimed to be the ‘sole inventor and originator of the famous packet of football cards’, and applied for and received a royal patent. He also made rugby and cricket cards, and eventually produced cards covering all kinds of sports, from horse racing to bowls. The cards were sold in packets of six for a ha’penny (about 10p in today’s money).

The colourful cards, mostly cut into the shape of a shield, depicted teams, kits, and pen pictures of popular players of the day. Many of them featured the phrase ‘Play up!’ (as in ‘Play up Preston North End!’) and the cards were sometimes referred to as Baines Play Up cards. One of the joys of trawling through Baines card collections is the vast array of teams covered, many of which no longer exist. In many cases, the cards serve as important historical artefacts, depicting club colours and players likenesses at a time when even black and white photography was scarce.

As a Newcastle United fan, for example, I found cards bearing the club’s previous name, Newcastle East End, showing the club colours as red and white, and depicting stars of the time such as Bobby Creilly, the formidable Scottish half-back whose life after football was a tragic tale of destitution and illness.

Baines cards were hugely popular, with boys queuing outside confectioners and tobacconists waiting for fresh deliveries from the ‘Football Card King’ horse-drawn wagon. Competitors soon arrived on the scene, and Baines warned his customers, ‘Do not be gulled by feeble imitations.’ One such competitor was Sharpe’s, also based in Bradford, and there were numerous local card manufacturers, as well as promotional football cards issued by tobacco and soap companies.

Unfortunately, although hundreds of thousands of Baines cards were produced in the Victorian era, they’re scarce today. On the positive side, that makes them pretty valuable – if you have any in the loft, they could be worth around £60 each.

One of the reasons they’re so scarce is that, oddly for a collectable item, the aim was to get rid of them. Weekly prizes worth £100 a year, including football jerseys, leather casers and music boxes, were awarded to boys who returned the largest collections of ‘medal’ cards back to Baines. Collectors were advised to check shop window show bills for details and cut off dates for each contest. In some case, boys (and Baines specifically referred to his customers as ‘boys’) were asked to submit ‘essays’ with their cards explaining why they deserved to win a weekly prize. Of those cards that were kept, many were damaged in a popular game called ‘skaging’, which involved flicking them against a wall.

The Baines Football Card empire reached its peak in 1920s, and John Baines passed the company on to his son, who subsequently sold it on. Various other manufacturers have produced football cards, none bigger than Benito and Guiseppe Panini’s sticker company, which was founded in 1961. But it all started with the self-styled ‘Football Card King’, and we should all doff a cap to John Baines.

Follow Paul on Twitter @realpaulbrown, and check out his new book, Unofficial Football World Champions.

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