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The Art of Selling Bubblegum
Bowman Bubblegum Trading Cards 1933-1955

Presented by the American Baseball Card Museum

Trading cards are works of art — drawings, photographs, and colorized photographs — with a commercial purpose. Soon after bubblegum was invented in 1928, Warren Bowman’s Gum, Inc. dominated the market with its “Blony” brand bubblegum. For decades before, cigarette and candy companies had included trading cards with their products. In the 1930s, Gum, Inc. began slipping a trading card in every penny Blony wrapper. With authentic samples from all 50 trading-card sets produced by the Bowman companies, this exhibit explores American culture and art reflected in the cards as influenced by the Great Depression, the gangster era, foreign wars, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the transition from radio to television. The cards also show the improvements in the artwork and printing processes over Bowman’s 23-year history.

Bowman issued its first card set in about 1933, a “Wild West” theme, and teamed with the Walt Disney Company in 1935 to produce a primitive Mickey Mouse set. Bowman then hired the George Moll advertising agency near Philadelphia, led by art director Charles Steinbacher, to create the artwork and text for its trading cards. In 1938, the Steinbacher group produced the iconic Horrors of War set, featuring explicit, gruesome scenes from contemporaneous international strife: Japan’s invasion of China, the Spanish Civil War, Fascist Italy’s attack on Ethiopia, and the aggression of Nazi Germany. Bowman reportedly sold over 100 million of the HOW cards — about 10 cards for every American boy of the target age. Life Magazine predicted that by depicting Japanese atrocities, the HOW set would influence public opinion against Japan. Steinbacher and his artists followed in 1940 with a popular Lone Ranger set inspired by the radio show and a Superman set just two years after Superman’s comic-book debut, both featuring color drawings.

Before gum production ceased during World War II, Bowman introduced higher-quality baseball cards with three sets branded as “Play Ball” in 1939, 1940, and 1941. After the war, Bowman produced the first-ever professional basketball set in 1948, annual football sets from 1949 through 1955, annual baseball sets from 1948 through 1955, and non-sports sets with themes ranging from entertainment celebrities, law enforcement, space exploration, anti-communism, the military, and the western frontier. Today, the Bowman baseball sets remain popular with collectors, especially the 1951 set with its color art reproductions of player photographs, including the rookie cards of superstars Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

The curators of this exhibition have provided additional details for those who are interested in learning more about a selection of the trading cards on display. You can click on the subjects below for more information.

Story text written by Jeff Faraudo, with the exception of the story on Chief Jospeh, which was written by Jeff Jaech.