The Benjamin K. Edwards Collection includes 2,100 early baseball cards dating from 1887 to 1914. Distributed in cigarette packs, these cards were the forerunners of modern sports trading cards. They portray such legendary figures of the game as Ty Cobb stealing third base for Detroit, Tris Speaker batting for Boston, and pitcher Cy Young posing in his Cleveland uniform. Although many of the greatest players from the first decades of professional baseball are represented, the collection does not include individual cards for either Honus Wagner or Babe Ruth.
Baseball cards were first issued during the 1880s when tobacco companies used them to promote sales. Although they also served periodically to stiffen soft cigarette packages, advertising was their primary function, for as early as 1887 cards and cigarettes were packed in more rigid "slide and shell" boxes which had no need for reinforcement. Although the cards vary in design and format, most are 2 5/8 x 1 1/2 inches, much smaller than today's trading cards. Two exceptions are the large format sets of Turkey Red Cabinets and Old Judge Cabinets, produced as premiums in exchange for coupons distributed in cigarette packs (see information about the card sets in chronological order). Issued either as black-and-white photographs or color prints, the cards portray ballplayers both in action scenes and formal poses.
More than one thousand major and minor league ballplayers, from teams n thirteen identified leagues and seventy-five cities in the United States and Canada, are represented in the collection. They include celebrated stars playing for storied major league clubs in Boston, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, along with more obscure minor leaguers performing in Birmingham, Little Rock, Memphis, Norfolk, Oakland, Providence, Richmond, Shreveport, Toledo, and elsewhere. Canadian cities represented include Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria.
Major leaguers account for more than three-quarters of the images in the collection. Great pitchers from the period include Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Smoky Joe Wood, Chief Bender, Joe McGinnity, Eddie Plank, Rube Marquard, and Rube Waddell, among others. Hall of Fame field players include King Kelly, Cap Anson, Home Run Baker, Dan Brouthers, Ed Delahanty, Eddie Collins, Buck Ewing, Wee Willie Keeler, Napoleon Lajoie, and Zack Wheat. Researchers may also find notable player partnerships, such as the immortal Cubs infield trio of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance or the talented Red Sox outfield comprised of Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and Harry Hooper. Connie Mack, John McGraw, and Charles Comiskey are among the game's outstanding early managers depicted.
Apart from the wealth of baseball lore and history the Edwards Collection represents, it also provides a rich resource for the study of commercial advertising and printing processes from the period. The earliest cards were issued either as straightforward black-and-white photographs or color lithographs mounted on stiff cards. Reproductive printing techniques advanced rapidly in the 1890s, however, and most cards produced after the turn of the century were created by combining relief-printed color with a black-and-white halftone image.
Cigarette card collector Benjamin K. Edwards preserved these baseball cards in albums with more than 12,000 other cards on many subjects, including actors and actresses, United States presidents, bathing beauties, military subjects, automobiles and airplanes, flags and flowers, and the comic pranks of young boys. Edwards appreciated the colorful cards for their popular appeal, advertising ingenuity, and historical value: "To the true collector the difficulty of finding old American cards is most inviting, and along with the sport thereof is the interest of research work and the insight as to the living and thinking of our people a half century ago." After his death, Edwards' daughter gave the albums to noted poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, who donated them to the Library's Prints and Photographs Division in 1954.