Tarun Goswami
2023-03-13 07:46:21

Smoking Out ‘fag’ cards

Smoking Out ‘fag’ cards

The Second World War had just ended and a young boy would often venture into the military barracks at Ballygunge Circular Road, some distance away from Bhawanipore, where he resided. Inside the barracks, the soldiers of the Allied Force would be busy playing football. The boy’s sole interest would lie in collecting the empty cigarette packets and match boxes, strewn inside the large compound.

One day an army officer noticed the boy and gave him some 20 odd empty cigarette packets and match boxes along with two boxes of chocolate and mosquito repellant. The boy was overjoyed with this unexpected treasure. It was the beginning of his brush with cartophily- the hobby of collecting cigarette or chewing gum cards.

“I still remember the army officer who first inspired me to collect empty cigarette packets. Now I have more than 3,000 empty cigarette packets and cards,” said Mr Parimal Roy who over the years became the most prominent cartophilist in the country. His collection is unique because every item is catalogued and well-preserved.

It was a business strategy by tobacco companies to boost sales as apart from the smoker even the kids in the family were interested in buying the cards. Mostly the cards contained photographs of motor cars, the Viceroys of British India and even gods and goddesses. The companies would advertise about introduction of a series, like automobiles or animals. One would have to collect the entire series, usually 25 to 30 cards within a period, say, three or six months. Though kids would often compel elders to buy in a bid to complete the series, not every packet bought contained the cards, causing disappointment and heartburn. Rarely, a series could be completed within the stipulated time. Often two different companies would introduce the competition simultaneously to boost sales.

Generations of children collected these fag cards and swapped them with their friends to complete the series. High quality of production –vivid colours and sophisticated printing process made these collectors’ items including Dickens series, Conan Doyle series or Henry series where characters from the novels or cartoon strip would feature in the cards. Famous tobacco companies like John Player Special, WD and HO Wills and Chesterfield would run such competitions. Other manufacturers included Smith’s Sun Cured mixtures and Ocden whose Polo brand was very popular. Taking a cue from the European and American cigarette manufacturers, Indian companies also began introducing cigarette cards. Kali Cigarette, the Imperial Tobacco of India which introduced the railway brand cigarette and Hawagarri brand of Peninsular Tobacco were the prominent Indian brands.  The Indian companies carried photographs of nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi in their cards but did not hold any competition.

The automobile series had become quite popular among the children in 1940s said Mr Roy. The details of that particular model of car were printed on the other side of the card. Lambert and Butler, the famous tobacco company had introduced a series of 25 photographs of cars in the mid 1930s. The fleet included photos of Rolls Royce, Hispano-Suiza and even Cubit - a rare vehicle which came as number 23 in the series. Minute details about Cubit were included; for instance that it was a 5 seater model, painted in French Grey or blue with dark upholstery, comes with adjustable wind  screen, four cylinder engine and Rotax lighting set. 

Sunbeam, number 14 in the series is described as a medium powered 14 horsepower, four- cylinder- car and an all-round touring model. Detachable side curtains along with the hood rendered the car absolutely weather proof.

The series on Governor-General was also quite popular. There were photographs of Lord Charles Marquis Cornwallis (1786 – 1793) who had introduced permanent settlement of Bengal in 1793. The Marquis of Dalhousie (1848-56) had introduced the doctrine of lapse system setting the ground for the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. There are also rare photographs of governor generals like Lord John Lord Teignmouth (1793-96) of Lord Charles John Viscount Canning (1856 - 62).

The photographs of Indian Gods and Goddesses used in Cigarette cards were printed in Europe. Lord Krishna and Radha were the most popular ones. In addition to the cards there were stickers which also came from Europe. John Player was the leading cigarette company to introduce this. “Just think about their market strategy and how intelligently they attracted the youngsters. There was also an educative value because the youngsters became aware of history and heritage,” said Mr Roy.


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