What Was the First Football Trading Card Set?

Read the fascinating history of the first football trading card set, and see the #1 current finest near-complete set for sale.

Football is unquestionably America’s most popular sport and the NFL its most powerful league.  But it came a long way to claim the top spot. While every major sport has its early days that differ from the current game, 19th-century football and the modern game are hardly recognizable.

AUCTION PREVIEW – First Football Trading Card Set: 1894 N302 Mayo’s Cut Plug Football Cards Near Complete Set (33/35) – #1 “Current Finest” on the PSA Set Registry – for sale at the 2020 May 7 – 9 Spring Sports Collectibles Catalog Auction #50026.

As football was finally becoming more organized in the late 1800s, it was a low-scoring, plodding game only Bengals fans could relate to now. In its infancy, football was played at the highest level by colleges with the Ivy League universities dominating the early landscape. These days those Ivy Leaguers are forced to hang their hats on only debate titles and Nobel laureates as state institutions control the National Championship scene.

The only thing today’s game and the one played during football’s genesis have in common is violence, and the controversy surrounding it. Currently, head injuries and CTE make headlines and drive rule changes to enhance player safety. Over 120 years ago the unrestrained brutality of the “anything goes” game nearly resulted in its being banned. Throughout the late 1800s, protests and politicians rallying against violence, injuries, and even deaths, that plagued football put its success into question. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt met with officials from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale to discuss rule changes.  

1894 Mayo’s Cut Plug Football Card Set

Despite the violence, or perhaps because of it, football’s fanbase continued to grow at the end of the 1800s. So, in the midst of the controversy, P.H. Mayo Tobacco Works of Richmond, Virginia saw fit to produce a trading card issue for the tobacco firm’s “Cut Plug” brand of tobacco. Thus, the first card set devoted purely to football was born. The thirty-five-card set included only players representing Yale, Harvard, and Princeton University teams, but for 19th-century gridiron collectors, this is the only card game in town.

Each card features a portrait photograph of a player in his university apparel, his name, and college, along with a “Cut Plug” brand ad. The fronts of the blank-backed cards are framed with black borders which helped hide staining from their proximity to tobacco within the pouches and tins. While most of the featured players have been lost to history there are a few notable entries. John Dunlop, whose name doesn’t appear on the card and is often referred to as “Anonymous”, is the rarest card in the set with fewer than a dozen known examples. It’s considered a “Holy Grail” and the most famous rarity in the entire genre of football collecting.

dunlop card

Another entry “Poe, Princeton” is believed to be a relative of author Edgar Allen Poe. This example of Poe’s entry, graded an SGC 30, sold for $900 in 2018:

poe card

1894 Football Card Set for Sale

A hard-hitting offering for gridiron collectors

Browse a near-complete set of 1894 N302 Mayo’s Cut Plug Tobacco football cards for sale at the May 7-9, 2020 Spring Sports Collectibles Catalog Auction.

1894 n302 mayo cut plug football cards

Learn More about Collecting Sports Memorabilia

Posted by Michael Provenzale

Heritage Auctions Production Manager, Sports and Memorabilia

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