Indeed, the story of how ballplayers like Mattimore came to pose for tobacco cards provides rare insight into the early marriage of pop culture and mass consumerism. In 1881, James Bonsack, an American inventor, patented the first commercial cigarette roller. Duke, then head of W. Duke Sons & Company, embraced the machine, which instantly transformed the tobacco industry. Within a few years, competition intensified between his company and old rivals, most notably Allen & Ginter and Goodwin & Company.
“When the competition really got going,” Devereaux says, these companies looked to Europe, where tobacconists had already begun inserting cards into cigarette packs. “People would collect them, and this was a way to maintain brand loyalty.”
Most early tobacco cards depicted scantily clad women and prominent vaudeville actresses. Temperance advocates took aim at these cards, leaving Duke and his competitors in search of other options. Initially, they settled on categories ranging from Civil War generals to Native Americans to more innocuous subjects like flags, birds, and bridges. By 1886, they’d added baseball to their ever-expanding list.
Source: Daniel Crown, Atlas Obscura
The story about how and why tobacco companies started and then stopped including cards with their product is fascinating. But so are the cards themselves. Here’s the link to the Library of Congress’ online collection of tobacco cards.