1936 United Tobacco Sports & Pastimes in South Africa

Pretty sure I’ve said this before one of the largest draws of pre-war cards is the actual craft that goes into the artwork and printing. They’re not all great but every once in a while I’ll see a set that takes my breath away.* Recently I became aware of the 1936 United Tobacco Sports and Pastimes of South Africa set and had a similar reaction.

*eg. the 1928 Will’s Cigarettes Romance of the Heavens set or the 1934 Garbaty Moderne Schonheitsgaleries.

Oftentimes I see such a set and when I check out the price, am able to quickly convince myself to walk away. Other times though these cards are pretty reasonable or I get lucky on ebay and find a lot that’s priced to move.

This case is the latter. As I understand things this set isn’t particularly easy to come by since it’s a South African release but I found a good partial set of 36 (out of 52) cards with domestic shipping even.

To the cards. I love the way that the artwork almost exclusively relies on solid inks in the design. The only screens show up in some of the dark browns and their use is restricted to fabrics that could very well be tweed. Everything else is solid and the resulting image just feels different than any of my other cards.

There’s a richness in having a print which is all ink and doesn’t rely on balancing the screens or even registering too tightly. The result reminds me of other 1930s work like the WPA posters and makes me want to get a silkscreen rig set up for custom cardmaking.

There’s also a richness in the amount of inks that are being used. I can’t fully tell how many are involved since I can’t quite wrap my head around how some of them interact but there’s got to be at least six. What’s awesome though is that not all colors are present on all cards. Some, like the fishing card, are super colorful while others, like wrestling, are completely missing a couple colors.

The backs are nowhere near as lush as the fronts but they manage to fit a decent amount of information in considering they’re bilingual English/Afrikaans. I also appreciate the variety of approaches. The golf card lists a series of champions and almost makes me think it depicts Lawson Little.* Rugby contains South Africa’s cumulative record against England, Australia, and New Zealand. River fishing is about how the rivers have been stocked with trout. And wrestling provides a snapshot of the current athletes in the sport.

*Not conclusive enough for me to move it to my Stanford album though.

The cards are also a mix of horizontal and vertical orientations with the horizontal cards being particularly beautiful. The Horse racing card is amazing in its sketchy detail and the way the crowd is rendered. The swimming card somehow manages to create water texture and movement without a lot of fine detail. The automobile racing has awesome speedlines which are a combination of black ink and paper left inkless. And the hurdler looks to be leaping out of the card.

I’m amazed at how different and distinct each card here is while they still manage to be graphically consistent with each other. Also it really weirds me out to see horse racing on a clockwise track.

I don’t have much more to comment on the backs except to note that I was caught by the reference to Robben island on the swimming card and how it captures the beginning of when swimming to the island became a thing and how that it’s now an event which marks the end of Apartheid.

A few more cards of note. The baseball card is neat in that it shows the worldwide spread of the game. I also like comparing it to the more dynamic batsman pose on the cricket card. I really dig the framing of the long jump card where the athlete is just hanging in the air. Cross country meanwhile is like the fishing and automobile racing cards in terms of being set in much more colorful landscapes. The red and white stripes are also a great look for the artwork.

Two comments on the backs here. first off, it appears that the cross country card features Paavo Nurmi. Second, the long jump card mentions “Jesse Owens, a young American negro.” As beautiful as these cards are, I can’t help but see them as being part of a deeply racist culture that was in the process of adopting measures which would officially become Apartheid in a dozen years.

It’s not lost on me that all the athletes depicted on the cards are white* and, from what I can tell, Jesse Owens is the only one mentioned on the backs whose race is included. I also have to point out here that these cards clearly pre-date the 1936 Berlin Olympics since none of them mention the results of those games.

*The Garbatys, while coming from Nazi Germany, are a pretty international  group though I’m not sure they feature any Black or Jewish actresses.

Definitely a fun set and I could’ve scanned all 36. I feel no desire to complete things and am perfectly content with four pages worth to enjoy. It also takes me to having trading cards from eight different countries (USA, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, France, South Africa, and Australia) which is pretty cool too.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

5 thoughts on “1936 United Tobacco Sports & Pastimes in South Africa”

  1. Those really are beautiful cards. They remind me of Pop Art, although there’s more than a little 1933 Goudey in there too. You’re quite right, though, that it’s hard to appreciate anything from that country in that era without thinking about how cruel the apartheid policy was.

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