Tuesday, February 16, 2021

1921 Universal Toy & Novelty Co. American President strip cards (related to W563)

Continuing down the Universal trail

Presidents Day 2021 is an ideal time to look at one subset of Universal Toy & Novelty's strip cards from a full century ago: the presidents. Let's also talk about a complicated character in this photo...

President Harding meets Ty Cobb, April 3, 1923

...our 29th Commander-in-Chief, Warren G. Harding. Cobb can take the day off.

What we're talking about when we talk about presidents

Universal's presidential strip cards are a subset of what's catalogued W563. While "100 years ago" represents a huge jump in terms of collecting history, that same amount of time lops off just 17 Presidents. Harding himself took office on March 4, 1921, before we changed to January inaugurations.

Despite Warren's lectern demeanor, Americans thought well of Ohio's former Senator during his lifetime. According to this 1992 set of Presidents, he knew baseball in detail and even owned a minor league team. Seems like an OK guy so far.

1992 Tuff Stuff Presidential Pitches #1

Universal released a strip of ten President cards in mid-1921 and their "© Copyright 1921" text straddles the outgoing Woodrow Wilson and incoming Harding. This nails down our issue date twice.

Universal printed this 1921 copyright date on just two other strips, a series of Boy Scout activities and scenes from Charlie Chaplin's movie "The Kid." (I'll profile those sets in future posts.)

Other subsets in this style, like W516-1 baseball and W529-1 boxing, omit any date. That implies Universal needed to enforce a design copyright or defend against similar claims from competitors by 1921. Either way, their company name appeared along the middle of each strip.

The ten Presidents that Universal chose say something about how people viewed history in 1921. I'll do my best to find commonalities and link to more info, accepting that my handful of sentences oversimplifies these presidents into tiny dots on a huge American canvas.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

These two loom over other Founding Fathers, thanks in part to how much territory they added to America itself. Washington's roles as military leader and our first President represent a meaningful chunk of high school history on their own. Jefferson also bridged the pre- and post-colonial eras as international statesman and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.

Washington and Jefferson's fierce differences regarding federal power (see the Whiskey Rebellion) make them tough to unite under a single philosophical banner. I was surprised to learn the phrase "Founding Fathers" came from Warren Harding himself. He grouped these venerated men together, in part, to position them against government actions he opposed, including entry into the League of Nations. While I doubt he expected "Founding Fathers" to become a permanent part of our lexicon, modern politicians continue to use our earliest leaders as a way to argue for any number of ideas.

Andrew Jackson

Avoid confusing our seventh president with Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson. (I sure have, on multiple occasions.)

Echoing Jefferson's push west into the Louisiana territory, Andrew Jackson pursued land expansion policies that furthered indigenous relocation (see Trail of Tears) and eventual Texas annexation. He remains in conversation today thanks to proposed changes to our $20 bill.

Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant

The presence of Lincoln and Grant hints at how big the Civil War remained in America's 20th century consciousness. I won't try to tell you anything new about Honest Abe. Grant's own reputation among modern historians, on the other hand, grew as biographers published new assessments of his military and presidential achievements.

McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft

While I believe Teddy Roosevelt's best-remembered of these three, Taft deserves a better reputation than his reputed bathtub misadventures. Eight years after leaving the presidency, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as nominated, in 1921, by Warren G. Harding. Even bad presidents possess great influence!

Before I forget to say so, Harding's administration ranks as one of America's worst. His own drinking habits and multiple infidelities paralleled corruption throughout the cabinet. You can spend several minutes just reading Wikipedia's summary of its scandals. Had Warren not died mid-term in 1923, he risked a public fall from grace soon after.

How these presidents fit Universal's bigger picture

Every era of card-making produced sets with politicians and presidents, so it makes sense Universal would do the same. Based on cards available in the hobby today, they ranked behind baseball and boxing in popularity with 1920s collectors, similar to the scarcity of Hollywood actors.

1919-21 Universal actors #15, Dorothy Dalton

I have a keen interest in strip card variety and look for hints wherever I can find them. Miscuts from presidential strips prove at least one multi-subject print layout existed. This one shows a sliver of W563 Warren Harding above W516 baseball's George Burns.

Another layout put them above W529 boxers.

Note that I used W516/W529/W563 catalog numbers instead of Universal Toy & Novelty in that context, since these miscuts lack clear connection with Universal's strip cards. An ideal example would show at least two different subjects and Universal's title text, something like this pasteup.

Until something with title text and multiple subjects appears, remember that Universal's cards represent a subset of similar strips. Some collectors and dealers consider them variations.

W516 Tris Speakers, with Universal at lower right

If a company printed a new strip of just ten presidents today, I bet at least half of these 1921 cards would flip to different guys, like FDR or Eisenhower.

Who's next

I skipped over Universal's Hollywood cards to talk about presidents, so will cover those two strips of actors next time.

Value: Individual presidents in low-grade cost $5-20, depending who you look for. In our current hot market for collecting, I'd expect to pay $10 or more.

Fakes/reprints: The thin paper and clumsy printing seen on many 1920s strip cards makes them easier to fake than other sets. Counterfeits might exist, so I recommend sticking to cheaper cards for a type set and working with dealers you trust.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

1919-21 Universal Toy & Novelty Co. boxing strip cards #5, Lew Tendler (related to W529-1)

Back in 2014, I profiled this W529 boxing #5 as my toe-in-the-water for collecting type cards beyond baseball. Tendler's straightforward look and $2 price tag appealed to me.

W529-1 #5 Lou (Lew) Tendler, normal IFC © 

Little did I know that Lew stood on an iceberg of variations. Consider the W529-2 boxing set, identical to W529-1, with reversed images and checklist numbering. Just like looking in a mirror.

W529-2 #6, reversed image and IFC ©

Why these flipped cards and number changes? I assume it proved more efficient for its maker to print two sheets at once, one normal and another backwards.

Side-by-side strips show our W529-1 and W529-2 end result. #1 Johnny Dundee on one sheet becomes #10 on the other and faces left instead of right.

(The lower strip's miscut from a larger sheet, with names above instead of below)

W529-1 variations extend beyond mirroring. Some of Lew's left-facing cards show a UNIVERSAL title, telling us who printed this set.

His #5 card starts a phrase, 'UNIVERSAL "FIGHTERS MATCHING CARDS" SERIES 1.'

"Universal," in this case, means the Universal Toy & Novelty Company of Indiana and Illinois.

Universal made many mid-century toys, like this tank kit with paper body parts and wooden wheels. Most of their products squeezed fun from a small box of low-cost materials.

Universal paper-wood tank with box and instruction sheet

There's more to learn from Tendler's card itself.

That "IFC ©" marker near Lew's right foot tells us these photos came from a service. Can we figure out which one?

Tendler promo photo (autograph dated 1922)

Lew's management arranged for Fowler Photo to take his studio photos and made them available to the press, which could be where IFC got involved.

Fred Fulton's #6 card came from this workout shot, tagged "International" in vertical type along its left edge.

Undated Fred Fulton photo

Fred's trunks and footwear match the pre-fight photo below, implying 1919 as the right date for his W529 shot.

1919 Fulton & Carter promo

I believe those IFC and "International" tags originate with the William Randolph Hearst-owned International Film Company, one of his many media outlets. Hearst tended to bulldoze over smaller competition, so who can say if IFC licensed their photos from Fowler by legitimate means or just sold them as their own.

Cataloging smaller issues like these boxers proves challenging a century after-the-fact. W529, a set of ten boxers, contains at least eight variations by text style and type of picture. These Jack Brittons show difference within that larger group.

Of that larger group, the W529-1 subset uses handwritten names and normal IFC © symbol. While all of the Universal-titled cards use low-gloss rag paper about the weight of playing cards, just #5 Tendler, #6 Fulton, and #7 Leonard can include Universal's top-border text.

While that makes all Universal boxing cards a subset of W529-1, you must intuit which #1-4 and #8-10 cards match their card stock. The reassembled strip above shows what I mean.

It also remains tough to nail down how W529 strip cards reached collectors. I've heard about candy store owners trimming them off one-by-one, vending machines selling full strips for a nickel, and so on. Universal itself used another method that suited its toy line.

Some (and perhaps all) of their strips came in variety "surprise boxes" like this one. Note the small line of faces on its lid at lower-left, alongside a bevy of other paper toys.

There's much more to say about Universal's strip card contributions. As a coda to our IFC discussion, some other sets sourced photos from Hearst's International Film Service (IFS), as on the Dorothy Dalton below.

1919-21 Universal actors strip card #15, Dorothy Dalton

Upcoming posts will dig deeper into those subjects, which run a gamut from Hollywood to baseball to the funny pages.

Value: While Lew cost me $2 a few years ago, many strip cards rose to $10+ since then, even in low grade.

Fakes/reprints: The crude nature of strip cards makes it easy to fake Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and other big baseball names. Universal's strips use rag paper about the thickness of playing cards. Anything with a high-gloss finish or bright white stock should be suspect. While boxers might not get the same treatment, I recommend seeking lesser names as type cards to reduce your risk of buying a bad one.