Penny Arcade Picture Cards
Collectible picture cards were issued in cigarettes, candy, gum and even on ice cream lids. But one group of cards that has received very little attention from collectors and are rarely seen as card shows or even collectible shows are picture cards that were issued from penny arcade vending machines. The cards were manufactured by the Exhibit Supply Company of Chicago, Illinois. The cards were called arcade cards for the simple reason that the cards were purchased not in stores, but from penny arcade machines located on the various seaside boardwalks of North America. As a kid I remember spending summer along the New Jersey shore and frequenting the various boardwalk arcades. Inside the confines of the boardwalk sitting next to the various games of skill and chance, the merry-go-round and other rides of adventure were rows of machines that distributed various picture cards. The cards were usually a nickel and the variety was very large. It seemed that each machine had its own specialty loaded inside.
There were machines that contained sports stars of football, baseball, movie stars, wrestlers, song cards and for those old enough the pinup girl cards. The Exhibition Company began issuing the cards in 1920 and the company continued to issue and release new cards until 1966, although for years afterwards cards continued to be issued from penny arcade machines. Even today on cards continue to turn up in penny arcade machines as the owners try to use up all the old cards. The interesting thing about the arcade cards was even though new series were issued each year of baseball, football, Hollywood movie star cards were followed by stars of current television shows, one could still find 1948 football cards in machines in the 1960's. Owners did not update cards and remove them, but continued to sell whatever stock was still on hand. This made it easier if one card become more valuable over the years to search and still be able to secure it.
Arcade cards manufactured by the Exhibit Supply were postcard size - 3 3/8" x 5 3/8". The photo appeared on the front of the card with usually a signature of the individual portrayed. In addition in the lower right hand corner appears: Made in USA or Printed in USA. The cards are on heavy card board stock and the majority are black and white or tan sepia colored.
The cards were usually issued in a series of 32 cards to make a set. But some sets were issued over several years and grew larger. One series of aircraft cards issued in the 1950's is complete with 64 cards. Dating the cards is not an easy task for some of the sets, Brooklyn Dodger baseball star Andy Pfako with baseball bat on his shoulder appeared in the machines from 1948-1958. This was interesting since he was part of the current players set several years after the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, California. As mentioned earlier in the article it is sometimes difficult to date individual cards due to the fact that the same photo was used for several years and the cards contain no other information except the autograph and Made or Printed in USA.
Several sets of baseball, western and movie stars were issued with four images on the front of the card. Many instances the four individuals pictured on the card were photos that were issued on individual cards. The four images on one photo could be called a check list card of the series. In the same manner that gun cards issued a check list card to know what cards were in the series.
Unless in a specific costume it is very difficult to determine whether the movie star pictured is for a specific movie, television show or a pinup star. The Exhibition issued entire series of what were called “Pinup” cards of female movie stars, show girls or unknowns. These cards always caused excitement when found by teenage boys on summer holiday at the Penny Arcade.
One set of western stars issued in the 1950's and early 60's appears to be connected to the famous set of plastic cowboys manufactured for the Hartland Plastic Company. Hartland manufactured various cowboy heroes, in plastic figures usually with their horse and other accessories. There was the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Roy Rogers, Bat Masterson, and others. The Exhibit card featured the actor that portrayed the character on the television show - Bat Masterson – Gene Barry.
During World War II there was a series of Army Song Cards that featured various patriotic and military songs with their lyrics on the card. In the 1950s a 64 card set of military and civilian aircraft of the United States. From Boeing B-52 Stratofortress to the Lockheed Constellation. One of the last series of cards issued by the company in the 1960s focused on the early Original Seven NASA astronauts pictured them in individual, group shots. Other cards in the series were of the first satellites launched by the United States.
A second area of collecting connected to the Exhibit Arcade cards is the advertising that was issued and usually placed on the glass in the front of the machine to draw the customers into a purchase. The advertising was usually connected to the cards that were inside the machine. During World War II such advertising as; “Fighting Machines of the USA”. Pictured airplanes, tanks, ships of the United States in battle scenes as the war raged on. The cards pictured an aircraft, or ship on the front of the card. The advertising posters were issued in two sizes; 12 1/2" x 18 1/2" this size is considered large and usually can be purchased for $125 (US). The second advertising is 12 1/2" x 12 1/2" and can be found in the price range of $85 (US). Arcade machines can be purchased without cards for several hundred dollars by the serious collector.
One series of cards were manufactured for the Canadian market – issued in 1953, the set is concentrated on major league baseball players – Ted Williams, Chico Carrasquel, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson. The set includes cards 33-56 of Montreal Royals players of the International Baseball League – Tom La Sorda, Walter Alston, Rocky Nelson. Cards in the set sell in the $8–$10 range.
Some cards did alter the pictures over the years. The famous cowboy singer and actor Gene Autry had at least three different poses over the years. One picture was autographed “With Best Wishes - Gene Autry”. Gene was wearing a western style button shirt with a giant American flag imprinted on the shirt.
As television became a major source of nightly family entertainment, cards were issued of the stars of the new shows. Hal Hodge - known as “Captain Video of the Space Rangers,” Ward Bond of Wagon Train fame, even a card of Robert Golet.
Football players were the other major source of material for Exhibit cards and along with baseball players actively sought by young collectors. Even though the cards are undated the type of helmet and uniform will date the era very nicely. Claude Young ready to throw a pass wearing a leather helmet. #50 Vitamin T. Smith leaping through the air, #13 Frank Younger charging through tacklers. Smith and Younger in leather helmets of the Los Angels Rams football team. A card of George Ratterman is a give away since he is wearing a plastic helmet, but it is still early 50's since the helmet does not have a face mask.
The wonderful aspect of collecting Exhibit produced Arcade cards which were sold through the Penny Arcades is that most of the material has remained very inexpensive to collect. One can concentrate on football players, baseball, wrestlers of the 40's and 50's, movie stars, television stars, pinups, military equipment and the individual cards sell in the $3-$10 range. Some cards of well known football or baseball players can sell on e bay for $100, but usually one can purchase lots of cards for $10 - $15. The other wonderful aspect of arcade cards is that not every variety is known, so from time to time collectors find cards that were never known to exist. Also I continue to find old cards in Penny Arcade machines at various ocean boardwalks. Many of the arcades are a step back into time and machines have never been empty or stock is still on hand and put into the machines. So for 5 cents one can still purchase an new-old cards.
The other fantastic aspect is it is a collecting area that has not caught the attention of many collectors and the key to collecting is to get in before an item becomes “hot” and the price goes up.
As far as is known only one book has been written on arcade cards. Published in 1998. It can be found on e-bay (select arcade cards) or ordered from Marvin Gibson, Post Office Box 217,Ozark, Missouri 65721 USA. $15 (US)
A second source book but long out of print is The American Card Catalog, by J. R. Burdick. Published by Nostalgia Press of New York City. Mr. Burdick has been deceased for almost 35 years. The values in the book are outdated, but it is a complete history of every type of card produced till 1967. This includes Arcade cards.
Note that the author of the article is working on a book which will focus on arcade cards and other items from the old 5&10 cent stores.
Always be aware of condition since the items are paper. Check to make sure the card is not a reprint. If the blank side of the card is to white, the paper should be heavy cheap, cardboard stock.
Jim Trautman is a freelance writer for magazines and television. He is presently working on several projects. Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 519-855-6077.