By Hudson River Museum

Highlights from the Museum’s large collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century trading cards

From Bathing Beauties to Swimming Legends


These small trading cards in the Hudson River Museum collection tell a big story about advertising and business, printing and photography, the American love of sports and the rise of women’s sports, and the power and infinite variety of images.

Christmas Card: Shout with Joy (1882) by Dora Wheeler Keith and Louis Prang & Co. (Boston, Massachusetts)Hudson River Museum

One hundred and fifty years ago, innovations in color printing made mass-produced advertising and greeting cards possible. Today, media images are so much a part of our lives that it is hard to overstate nineteenth-century demand for decorative prints and inexpensive portraits of famous individuals.

Poets in Smokeland series (women bundling cigarettes in factory) by Allen and GinterHudson River Museum

In the 1880s, tobacco companies were looking for ways to promote a new product: machine-rolled cigarettes. Some of these manufacturers began to produce small cards to insert in each cigarette package.

John M. Ward, Baseball Player, from World's Champions, Series 1 (N28) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes (1887) by Lindner, Eddy & Claus|Allen & GinterThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Soon, tobacco companies fiercely competed to outdo each other in number and artistic quality of their cards. So many of these cards, including Allen & Ginter’s World’s Champions, featured baseball players that, over time, people called them “baseball cards” even though they featured a wide variety of sports and non-sports subjects. Collecting trading cards has been a popular hobby for over one hundred years.

Honest Tobacco (1892) by Robert Godfrey SprunkHudson River Museum

This painting gives a sense of the small scale of the packaging in the period before cigarettes had filters, which added to their length.

Capt. Matthew Webb (1888) by Allen & GinterHudson River Museum

Nineteenth-century tobacco cards rarely featured competitive swimmers, especially compared to baseball players, rowers, boxers, bicyclists, and track and field athletes. Allen & Ginter’s “The World’s Champions” series only included two swimmers. Much more common at the time were card sets of “bathing beauties.”

The Bathe at Newport (Harper's Weekly, Vol. II) (September 4, 1858) by Winslow HomerThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the second half of the nineteenth century, ocean recreation was all the rage. Walking and wading along the beach were seen as ways to promote health. Men and women could breathe fresh air, enjoy the sun from under protective parasols, and splash in the salt water.

Rockaway (1889) by Kinney Brothers Tobacco CompanyHudson River Museum

Goodwin, William S. Kimball & Company, and Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company all took advantage of this popular pastime. Each created a set of insert cards with titillating subject matter to tempt cigarette buyers and ensure brand loyalty. At the time, it was only socially acceptable for men to smoke, even though many of the workers who packaged cigarettes were women.

Rockaway (1888) by William S. Kimball & CompanyHudson River Museum

Many of the place names on these cards are legendary in popular culture history. Rockaway in Queens and Coney Island in Brooklyn drew crowds of middle and working class New Yorkers for a day of respite at the beach.

Sainte Brelade (1889) by William S. Kimball & CompanyHudson River Museum

In their 1889 series Fancy Bathers, William S. Kimball & Company featured European resorts, such as Sainte Brelade and Grève d'Azette, as well as American beaches.

Coney Island (1889) by Kinney Brothers Tobacco CompanyHudson River Museum

In the 1880s, women’s bathing costumes included skirts, voluminous bloomers, and dark stockings, so the more form-fitting, bare-leg outfits depicted on cards like this reveal that they were meant as miniature pin ups rather than depictions of common attire.

Ostende, Belgium (1889) by Kinney Brothers Tobacco CompanyHudson River Museum

Kinney Brothers even showed some “beauties” reclining in suggestive poses reminiscent of historical paintings of courtesans.

Walter A. Lee, New York Athletic Club (ca. 1910) by Hassan CigarettesHudson River Museum

The first modern summer Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, included swimming races in a nearby bay. By 1910, during an intense period of competition between tobacco companies, swimming cards featuring depictions of actual athletes had gained popularity.

Walter A. Lee, New York Athletic Club (verso) (1910) by Hassan CigarettesHudson River Museum

In Hassan Cigarettes' Champion Athletes series, the cards featured biographies and statistics about the swimmers. This is the back of Walter Lee’s card in the previous slide.

September Morn (Tobacco Premium) (ca. 1913) by Unknown makerHudson River Museum

While men’s sports were popular and respected, this took much longer for women. Risqué images persisted and added to women’s challenges of being taken seriously as athletes, workers outside the home, and potential voters. Based on a French painting by Paul Émile Chabas, which was displayed in New York, this flannel tobacco premium and stick pins featuring its image caused scandal when they were collected by school-aged boys.

Swimming Competitors (1910/1930) by Library of CongressNational Women’s History Museum

Gradually women had more opportunities to participate in competitive sports. Swimming seemed more acceptable to some people due to its association with women’s colleges and country clubs.

In 1912, women were allowed to compete for the first time in Olympic swimming. The summer games in Stockholm, Sweden, included a one-hundred-meter freestyle race and a freestyle relay.

Miss Ideal (Irene Deal), No. 12, Somersaults in the Water (1913) by Pan Handle Scrap CompanyHudson River Museum

The next year, the chewing tobacco company Pan Handle Scrap celebrated women’s athletic accomplishments in their series, Champion Women Swimmers.

Miss Ideal (Irene Deal), No. 12, Somersaults in the Water (verso) (1913) by Pan Handle Scrap CompanyHudson River Museum

Pan Handle Scrap published one hundred cards, which depicted more than twenty swimmers. The backs of some cards have biographical information on the women and their accomplishments.

Many instead feature swimming tips about lifesaving and various strokes, even somersaults.

Annette Kellermann, No. 33, Vitality and Muscle Building Exercises (ca. 1913) by Pan Handle Scrap CompanyHudson River Museum

All of the women in the Champion Women Swimmers series wear dark knit swimsuits, similar to those worn by men and popularized for women by Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman (1887–1975). These sleek, one-piece garments permitted faster, safer swimming for women.

Odiva, No. 25, Breathing and Swimming (1913) by Pan Handle Scrap CompanyHudson River Museum

The women profiled by Pan Handle Scrap on their cards were accomplished athletes, yet many of them could only earn a living professionally on the vaudeville circuit doing swimming and diving acts. Odiva, known as the “living mermaid,” performed with sea lions and held her breath for two minutes while doing acrobatics, or even sewing, at the bottom of a water tank.

Duke Kahanamoku (1933/1934) by The Goudey Gum Company, BostonHudson River Museum

By the 1930s, there were many more trading cards produced by chewing gum than tobacco companies, but sports subjects were still one of the major promotional incentives. Goudey Gum Company issued Sport Kings Gum with insert cards featuring eighteen sports and forty-eight athletes, including Duke Kahanamoku, Helene Madison, and Johnny Weissmuller, all gold medal Olympians.

Duke Kahanamoku (verso) (1933/1934) by The Goudey Gum Company, BostonHudson River Museum

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku (1890–1968), or “The Big Kahuna,” was known as the “father of modern surfing” from Hawaii to California to Australia. He first gained international fame when he won a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics.

Duke Kahanamoku with His Redwood Surfboard (ca. 1925) by Unknown PhotographerHudson River Museum

This later photograph of Duke Kahanamoku was probably taken at a beach in Southern California, where Kahanamoku was a swimming coach at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

Helene Madison (1933/1934) by The Goudey Gum Company, BostonHudson River Museum

In 1932 Helene Madison won the Olympic 400-meter freestyle with a time of five minutes, 28 and five-tenths seconds for a new World and Olympic record in long distance swimming. She also won the 100-meter freestyle event.

Johnny Weissmuller (1933/1934) by The Goudey Gum Company, BostonHudson River Museum

In 1924 Johnny Weissmuller broke American and World swimming records in nearly every distance race from 100 yards to 880 yards. In 1928 he won the Olympic 100-meter freestyle.

Tarzan's New "Jane" (1949-08-08) by Edward ClarkLIFE Photo Collection

Johnny Weissmuller isn’t only known for his swimming. After retirement he starred as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic character Tarzan in twelve movies from 1932 to 1948. As one of the best known actors to play Tarzan, his yell is still sometimes used in other movies.

Christy Mathewson, Giants (1911) by Turkey RedHudson River Museum

The Hudson River Museum has a large collection of sports and non-sports trading cards, including many baseball players featured on Turkey Red Tobacco Premiums in 1910 and 1911. A selection of these and cards from the Sky Birds series, issued by the National Chicle Gum Company in 1933 and 1934, can be seen on the Museum’s Google Arts and Culture page.

Credits: Story

Curated by Victoria McKenna-Ratjen, Curatorial Assistant

This virtual exhibition was produced by the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY.

Documentary photographs courtesy of the LIFE Photo Collection and the National Women's History Museum on Google Cultural Institute.

Winslow Homer, "The Bathe at Newport." September 4, 1858. (Harper's Weekly, Vol. II) courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Google Cultural Institute.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.