In 1871 the American company of Allen and Ginter began inserting pieces of card to protect the cigarettes from being damaged. It was not long before tobacco companies had the idea of printing advertisements on these cards, or "stiffeners" as they were called in the trade. In about 1876 companies began producing a series of cards that the smoker could collect. It was believed that this would encourage the smoker to continue using that particular brand.
The first British company to issue cigarette cards was W.D. & H.O. Wills. The first card appeared in 1887 and were at first used to advertise its products. Ogdens, a company based in Liverpool, introduced the first series of cigarette cards in 1894.
As Gordon Howsden points out in his book, Collecting Cigarette and Trade Cards: "At a time when the average family could not afford books, and with the technique of reproducing photographs in newspapers still some years away, these cards could inform and amuse, and bring a little bit of colour into what were all too often very drab lives."
Arnold Bennett once remarked that "some boys will grow up with cigarette cards as their sole education". Another writer, Clifford Hough, pointed out that cigarette cards were dubbed "The Working Man's Encyclopedia" because "they brought pictures of famous faces and fascinating places to the attention" of the masses. Hough adds that on "the reverse side the captions contained many interesting facts and pieces of information that often sunk into a boy's mind to a greater extent than any dull textbook from schooldays."
Subjects were chosen to appeal to their male customers. In 1896 the first set with a sporting theme appeared. This was a series of 50 cricketers. The tobacco companies discovered that these sporting cards were a great way to obtain brand loyalty. Later that year the first football set appeared. Footballers & Club Colours was published by Marcus & Company, a small firm in Manchester.
I have produced a page showing the early cigarette cards that featured Manchester United players.
I would be very interested if any member of the forum has any cigarette cards featuring Manchester United players pre-1945 that are not featured on my page.