The story so far
My past posts about the Universal Toy & Novelty Company covered their ten-card strips of boxers and American presidents.
Those strips lay groundwork for more Universal Toy subjects, including today's 20-card set of movie actors. Its #5 features Charlie Chaplin looking a good deal cleaner than his signature Tramp character.
Its checklist includes Hollywood legends like Fairbanks and Pickford, who were married to each other from 1920-36.
- Douglas Fairbanks
- Theda Bara
- Fatty Arbuckle
- Pearl White
- Charles Chaplin
- June Caprice
- George Walsh
- Olive Thomas
- William S. Hart
- Mary Pickford
- Elaine Hammerstein
- Bryant Washburn
- Mabel Normand
- Charles Ray
- Dorothy Dalton
- Owen Moore
- Mae Murray
- William Farnum
- Norma Talmadge
- Wallace Reid
As with Universal's boxers and presidents, some actor strips include UNIVERSAL "MOVIE MATCHING CARDS" SERIES 2 text across Chaplin, #6 June Caprice, and #7 George Walsh.
Note how SGC used "C(irca) 1919 W-UNC" on this flip, which implies the submitter and SGC each failed to nail down a year or manufacturer.
Why so little info? Jefferson Burdick's 1960 edition of the American Card Catalog articulated challenges identifying this category of low-cost, high-volume sets.
This section shows an all-too-human side effect of passion projects like the ACC. See that gap between W517 and W519? Burdick's former W518 listing now points to R346 (aka, "Blue Tints"), which he first listed as a strip set and later moved into the "recent" (R-) classification for sets released after 1930.
While R346 cards were printed on vertical strips, many vending machines sold them one or two at a time. This created a distinctive edge when kids tore them off at the dispenser and many resemble this John Lindell, who lost his number when the lower-right corner peeled off, perhaps in the machine itself.
If you can't buy a complete strip, it is still a strip card? I bet that Zen koan is what changed its catalog number. Burdick adjusted ACC listings like this from time-to-time, yet left W516 all lumped together. I guess collectors knew too little at the time to untangle its different designs and checklists.
Several contemporaries released reversed strips like this and I hypothesize that their machinery enabled cheap simultaneous printing on opposing sheets. If you know more about this 1920s printing tech, drop a line!
Why do I care about this crude 1920s Hollywood strip card set? Why should you?
Throughout our hobby history, publishers sold their sports and non-sports cards side-by-side. The same people often created each set a company made, so details of one tell you about their others. The 2022 Internet helped me assemble a more complete puzzle than was possible for Burdick in 1960 and combining details from these baseball and actor strips narrow down dates for each set. Chaplin himself rose to prominence by 1915 and appeared in card sets for decades, so we need this strip's full checklist to tighten its range.
Range of public familiarity, earliest/latest in bold
- Douglas Fairbanks (1900s-1930s)
- Theda Bara (1915-26)
- Fatty Arbuckle (1910 - manslaughter trials in Nov 1921)
- Pearl White (1910-24)
- Charles Chaplin (1915-40s)
- June Caprice (1916-21)
- George Walsh (1914-36)
- Olive Thomas (1914 - death in Sept 1920)
- William S. Hart (1915-20s)
- Mary Pickford (1900-50s)
- Elaine Hammerstein (1913-26)
- Bryant Washburn (1917-47)
- Mabel Normand (1915-26)
- Charles Ray (1915-23)
- Dorothy Dalton (1915-24)
- Owen Moore (1910-1930s)
- Mae Murray (1915-20s)
- William Farnum (1910-50s)
- Norma Talmadge (1915-30)
- Wallace Reid (1910 - death in 1923)
|Composite of reversed Babe Ruth + Mary Pickford|
Ruth's appearance as "Yanks pitcher" sets its year to 1920. He joined New York after 1919 and switched to full-time outfielder that season (career stats). Earlier sets show him in Boston and no reasonable 1921 card would call him a pitcher. We can title it Hollywood Actors to distinguish the strips from Universal's other sport and non-sport subjects.
|How my personal grading company would slab it|
|UNIVERSAL " MOVIE MATCHING CARDS" SERIES 2|
|Still seeking #16 Tom Moore with "MOVIE MATCHING" text|
This apparent disorder happened again on baseball strips, where #11-20 are Series 1, #21-30 are Series 2, and #1-10 are Series 3.
|Universal Series 3 (#1-10) title composite|
Hard to say why Universal numbered their "series" strips this way and I'll update this article if a good theory emerges.
So how were Universal cards distributed?
Back in the 1920s, strip cards reached collectors in various ways, from vending machines to candy counters to movie house promos. Universal distributed some of them in Surprise Boxes of assorted paper toys, as spilled by this generous bluebird.
|1920s Universal Toy & Novelty Co., Surprise Box lid|
I found this box cover scan at Vintagenonsports.com and sample contents include a horizontal strip of portraits that look like our Hollywood actors.
|Surprise Box (detail)|
|1920 Universal Toy & Novelty Co. baseball, #14-16|
This confirms Universal printed actors on the same sheet with ballplayers for at least two series and perhaps more. A larger number of baseball cards survive today, reflecting our hobby's tendency to pick sports over non-sports.
|Four Cobb variations, one W516 catalog number|
We set a date (1920), publisher (Universal Toy & Novelty, Co.), and proposed new catalog numbers for these 20 actors. I'll continue the Hollywood theme next time and look at a Chaplin-only strip set, ten cards that summarize his 1921 movie "The Kid." Questions welcome about these conclusions and thanks for reading!
Great post. So much information on a set I didn't know anything about. I'd love to find one of those surprise boxes in the wild. It reminds me of these bags from this Japanese bookstore my parents would go to back when I was a kid. It'd contain a bunch of small random items for a low price.
Thanks, sounds much the same! A bunch of easy-to-make paper toys for, who knows, 10 or 25 cents total? In 1920, not sure how much people would spend on a transient toy for children.
The end goal to this series about Universal Toy, if unclear so far, is to bring all of these strip sets together under a single banner and make a convincing case to grading company change how all these things are catalogued. It will be a challenge indeed to rewrite that kind of history, with many invested in W516 as a discrete thing. Tilting at windmills, maybe. :-)
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