Sunday, July 10, 2022

1920 Universal Toy & Novelty Co. Hollywood Actors #5, Charlie Chaplin (and June Caprice)

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.

  1. Douglas Fairbanks
  2. Theda Bara
  3. Fatty Arbuckle
  4. Pearl White
  5. Charles Chaplin
  6. June Caprice
  7. George Walsh
  8. Olive Thomas
  9. William S. Hart
  10. Mary Pickford
  11. Elaine Hammerstein
  12. Bryant Washburn
  13. Mabel Normand
  14. Charles Ray
  15. Dorothy Dalton
  16. Owen Moore
  17. Mae Murray
  18. William Farnum
  19. Norma Talmadge
  20. 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.

A text variation shifts its header text to the left, starting UNIVERSAL on #4 Pearl White and placing "MOVIE over Chaplin. These text variations prove somewhat harder to find than cards without header text.

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.

Note that Burdick starts his W- strip card category with W500, a catch-all category for anything he failed to list under its own number. If collectors used this as intended, we could put "uncatalogued" to bed and label unidentified cards as W500 until we know enough to create a unique listing. Guides and grading companies have ignored this advice and tend to use "W-UNC" instead.

If you remember my past W516 baseball profiles, you'll recognize this ACC description of a 30-card set with "reversed" variations.

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.

The "CIFS" listing for W516 refers to ©I.F.S., a handwritten legend next to Tris Speaker's heel that is off by one letter. His exact text is ©I.F.C. and not S., a minor difference since both refer to William Randolph Hearst-owned image licensing services. Chaplin splits CIFS into © on the photo and I.F.S. below his name, details that prove helpful later.

Each #5 ©I.F.S. card has its #6 mirror on a reversed strip of ten images. These flipped actor cards dropped I.F.S. text from their footers for reasons that remain unclear.

Recall that ACC listed two W516 "reversed SFIC" sets in "red & blue" or "all colors." Actor strips show similar color variations, red/blue above and all colors below.

The reversed set #5 shows June Caprice and these strips lack any "Universal Movie Matching Cards" header text variations.

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

  1. Douglas Fairbanks (1900s-1930s)
  2. Theda Bara (1915-26)
  3. Fatty Arbuckle (1910 - manslaughter trials in Nov 1921)
  4. Pearl White (1910-24)
  5. Charles Chaplin (1915-40s)
  6. June Caprice (1916-21)
  7. George Walsh (1914-36)
  8. Olive Thomas (1914 - death in Sept 1920)
  9. William S. Hart (1915-20s)
  10. Mary Pickford (1900-50s)
  11. Elaine Hammerstein (1913-26)
  12. Bryant Washburn (1917-47)
  13. Mabel Normand (1915-26)
  14. Charles Ray (1915-23)
  15. Dorothy Dalton (1915-24)
  16. Owen Moore (1910-1930s)
  17. Mae Murray (1915-20s)
  18. William Farnum (1910-50s)
  19. Norma Talmadge (1915-30)
  20. Wallace Reid (1910 - death in 1923)
Washburn's presence and Olive Thomas's death sets our range at 1917 minimum and caps it at 1920 or 1921.

Universal's set of American presidents included the March 1921 transition from Wilson to Harding and a © 1921 date. These baseball and actor strips lack this copyright line, so I bet they're older, but by how much?

That two-color fragment on Mary Pickford's left edge matches one particular card: a reversed W516 Babe Ruth. This confirms its printer cut their longer strip (at least 20 cards wide) into separate baseball and actor groups.

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

Series 1 and Series 2

Recall that #7 George Walsh showed "series 2" on cards with Universal header text, so where is series 1?


As it happens, Universal labeled their #1-10 actors as "Series 2" and #11-20 as "Series 1," flipping the script on strip numbering.

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 and sample contents include a horizontal strip of portraits that look like our Hollywood actors.

Surprise Box (detail)

Its leftmost card resembles actor #15 Dorothy Dalton and I bet Surprise Boxes contained at least one of Universal's strip sets, sport or non-sport. 

Hollywood photographer Albert Witzel snapped Dalton's original image and photo services enlisted Witzel for portraits that went to newspapers, publicists, and card companies. Too bad its low-quality color muddled a dramatic and subtle original.

In addition to the horizontal miscut of Ruth to Pickford, this W516 baseball strip shows a fragment of I.F.S. text above its header, something we already know appears below each actor's name.

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.

I'd love to see an original print layout and settle this set's many niggling questions. (To my knowledge, nothing larger than a 10-card strip survives today.)

Assigning a catalog number

We now have a date (1920) and manufacturer (Universal Toy & Novelty Co.) that I trust for this set of 20 actors. Let's return to the ACC for available numbers.

W512 and W513 used a contiguous #1-100 sequence and yet received different numbers, perhaps due to confusion over its commingled sport and non-sport cards. (Uncut sheets, which Jefferson Burdick might not have seen, show that W512 and W513 belong together.)

I will leave W516 reclassification alone for now, even as it deserves a better fate than this grab bag assortment.

Four Cobb variations, one W516 catalog number

ACC's "Numbered Colored Cards" section left a gap after W545 for future use. I propose W546 and W547 as appropriate spots for our actor strip sets.

W546 -- Hollywood Actors (20) handwritten name, "I.F.S." text below name, normal © on photo, printed by Universal Toy & Novelty, Co. 1-1/2" x 2-1/2". 1 Fairbanks, 2 Bara, 3 Arbuckle, 4 White, 5 Chaplin, 6 Caprice, etc. Portion of "UNIVERSAL MOVIE MATCHING CARDS" text above some photos.

W547 -- Hollywood Actors (20) handwritten name, reversed © on photo, assumed printed by Universal Toy & Novelty, Co. 1-1/2" x 2-1/2". 1 Pickford, 2 Hart, 3 Thomas, 4 Walsh, 5 Caprice, 6 Chaplin, etc.


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!


Fuji said...

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.

Matthew Glidden said...

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. :-)

Mark G said...

I remember finding the strips of Kunzee Smirls and ZyloHomos the Bird from the mysterious Cuban Pleasures series of 1922. Very cool