One of the best things about pre-war cards is how they reflect earlier ages of human knowledge and interest. Sets like the Peeps into Many Lands and Wonders of the Past serve as a way of discovering cultures abroad in a time when the world was still big but getting smaller and more interconnected. Others such as Romance of the Heavens capture the extent of our knowledge about the space in the 1920s.
My favorite trading cards though are the ones that reflect their age of knowledge/interest while simultaneously commemorating current events. Whether it’s a set built around how fast people can go or one summarizing the cutting edge celebrity state of airflight the idea that cards reflect what just happened is something that we still expect from the hobby.
In 1911 and 1916, Player’s Cigarettes released two sets of cards about polar exploration* which are kind of the best example I’ve seen so far for capturing he appeal of pre-war cards. The Age of Polar Exploration at the turn of the century is possibly the last age of heroes going off into the unknown** until we started sending people into space and as a result, is something that I’m not alone in still finding somewhat fascinating.
*Don’t worry I’ll get into the significance of these dates as I get to the cards.
**I’m willing to consider Mt. Everest here but part of that is really just due to the George Mallory disappearance.
The first series is split between North Pole and South Pole but treats each pole very differently. In many ways each pole feels like a distinct set. We’ll start off with the North Pole which consists of 16 out of the 25 cards in the set including a handful of cards which just describe the area.
These cards give a sense of the set. Polar regions, by being mostly ice and snow, are a challenge to illustrate—it’s not easy to keep the ice white while also giving it depth. The pictures as a result aren’t the lush saturated colors that I’m used to with other chromolithography but I find myself appreciating the control in the art and how well it uses the ink it’s allowed to use.
The backs feature some nice design details around the border and provide the usual paragraph of interesting facts. It’s interesting to me how the Aurora Borealis card references European cultures as well since they’re not just visible to the Canadian Arctic.
Aside from the colonizer term, the Inuit cards are surprisingly not too cringe. In fact, given the subject matter of the South Pole cards in the 1916 second series, the content of the Inuit cards is tragically prescient.
Most of the North Pole cards though consist of individual cards which detail the results of various polar explorers. There is a lot of tragedy in this group with Andrée’s balloon and lost Franklin expedition being two of the most prominent.
As the back of the Andrée card shows, at the time of printing no one had any idea what had happened to the three explorers aside from the fact that they had never been seen again. It was only in 1930 when their bodies, logs, and all of Nils Strindberg’s photographs were discovered that the world learned what had happened. While the balloon only flew for three days, the three men survived for three months on the ice—kind of an amazing feat all things considered.
The Franklin expedition is a similar sort of mystery. While the card suggests that the story of his fate was completed in 1850, we only found the graves of many of the explorers in the 1980s and in fact discovered the ships only in the past decade. The coolest part of the ships discovery is how Inuit oral records helped in the search and that while the expedition was considered “lost” but the West there were clearly records of it kept in Inuit culture.
The other North Pole cards consist of Fridtjof Nansen, William Parry & Henry Hoppner, Parry & John Ross, James Ross, Robert Peary, Henry Hudson, John Cabot, and Eric the Red. That Frederick Cook is absent from this checklist suggests that even by 1911 his claim to have reached the North Pole first was sufficiently discredited.
I’ve included some of the more-striking cards for this section. Unfortunately Peary’s card is not particularly interesting. Eric the Red and John Cabot are kind of wonderful artwork and the Hudson card is probably the most tragic looking of the entire set.
I also had to include the Robert Scott card even though it’s part of the South Pole checklist. Since the second series is all about his tragic Terra Nova Expedition I felt it import to highlight his card here.
Not much to add about the backs of the North Pole explorers except to note how far back in time they go and how polar exploration and the Northwest Passage are linked. Where the South Pole is a distinct achievement in its own, the North Pole was clearly related to other goals.
The back of the Scott card confirms how this set is either a late 1910 or 1911 release since it’s written in present tense. Given what how we know that those tractors were mostly a disaster, using them to represent the entire exhibition was indeed an omen.
Aside from the one Scott card the other eight South Pole cards in the set were dedicated to Ernest Shackleton, in particular the Nimrod Exhibition. These at first appear to be similar to the generic North Pole cards but instead depict specific locations and events from the exhibition.
I enjoy the backs of these and how they both tell the story of the expedition and suggest that the images are related to the scientific mission of the expedition. Googling around suggests that these may be adaptations of George Marston’s paintings—the Aurora Australis one in particular looks very close to both his painting and the cover of his book.
There are also three non-landscape Shackleton cards. One striking portrait and a group picture at the South Magnetic Pole which is taken directly from the photograph. The diary card though is possibly my favorite of the set since it’s distinct among all the pre-war cards I’ve seen.
The back of Shackleton’s portrait contains a nice summary of his exhibition which contrasts wonderfully with the specificity of his diary entry. I also enjoy the idea that his expedition formally added Antarctica to the British Empire because they planted the flag there first.
Anyway that’s the first series. Post-Peary with Shackleton an emerging hero. Scott’s exhibition is underway and with him as the last card of the set it’s clear that Player’s was planning a triumphant second series.
That triumphant second series of course never materialized. It however feels wholly appropriate for the period to release a set which basically commemorates the heroic sacrifices that Scott and his men made. While Scott became a national hero in 1913, this set was released in the middle of World War I and yeah, I can’t imagine a more-appropriate framing for this futile sacrifice on behalf of King and Country.
The back text is clear about the framing of this set with its glowing epitaphs to four of the men who perished. This isn’t just about what they did, it’s about making them into brave, noble heroes who other military men should try and emulate.
The images of the exhibition are more tragic to me since, as with the tractor card in the first series, they show all the stuff which didn’t work. Ponies which couldn’t handle the snow. Dogs which the men got too attached to. Man-hauling sledges. It’s kind of amazing that everything that the cards show was sort of a disaster.
The artwork in the second set is a bit higher contrast than in the first set with an emphasis on the men instead of the landscape they’re in. There’s also a kind of wonderful thing going on with the borders getting a light color which allows the white portions of the image to really pop. There’s also a great sketchy quality to the portraits.
The text on these cards though doesn’t suggest anything went amiss aside from the humor in the dogs eating penguins. Even the crevasse card which shows a man falling in handwaves away the danger of the situation. This seems especially wrong to read now since we’re pretty sure Edgar Evans died as a result of a head injury sustained during such a fall.
Eighteen of the twenty five cards in this set are devoted to the Scott expedition. Compared to the Shackleton cards in the first series though the Scott cards feel like imagined scenes. As much as cards like the the soccer game are fun, they don’t look like the images that document the trip. This is a bit of a shame since Herbert Pontings’s photographs can be spectacular and would’ve made for great cards. Edward Wilson’s watercolors* are also quite nice** and would’ve similarly been nice to see on cards.
*While the idea of photographing in sub-zero polar weather seems insane to me, the idea of making watercolor paintings seems even crazier.
**It’s a shame that there doesn’t seem to be any good records, online or in print, of the exhibition of their work.
Similarly, it would’ve been nice to see some reference to the fossils that were found with Scott’s body and what evidence of Glossopteris living in Antarctica meant in terms of Antarctica’s former climate. (While we recognize those fossils now as evidence of Continental Drift, that theory had not yet been accepted when these cards were printed.)
The seven non-Scott cards consist of three cards depicting penguins and seals and four cards dedicated to the successful Amundsen expedition. Looking at the Amundsen cards reminds me of the North Pole cards in series one which describe the Inuit, their dog sleds, and use of animal hides for keeping warm. It may be that the cardmakers wanted to contrast the native technology with the tractors and other British technology but seeing how things turned out it’s clear that the Inuit methods that Amundsen’s group followed were superior.
We’ll wrap things up with two more portraits. The first is Teddy Evans who’s credited on some sites with being in charge of the artwork and writing on these cards. His portrait is the only one in the set which doesn’t have the sketch quality.
And of course I have to include a portrait of Roald Amundsen whose successful navigation of the Northwest Passage is worthy of inclusion in the first set. It seems a little wrong to dedicate more than four times as many cards to Scott than to Amundsen but there is something evocative even now about the Scott tragedy.
All in all a very fun pair of sets despite the amount of death and loss that they describe. These take me back to a different age of humanity more than any other pre war sets that I have and I love the way that looking at them and reading the backs allows me to travel back in time.