“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley; ding, ding, ding went the bell!” Those familiar words sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 motion picture “Meet me in St. Louis” suggested my youth on the South Side of Chicago.
During the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s, streetcars – also called trolleys – were a way of life to all urbanites. At the peak, there were 50,000 streetcars in 3,000 cities and towns.
Today’s generation can enjoy this mode of transportation in the U.S. only in New Orleans and San Francisco. The era of streetcars has provided a very sophisticated segment in the collecting world. Photos or postcards showing streetcars are sought by historians along with paper transfers, possibly the most difficult piece of ephemera to find. You could travel the entire city of Chicago through the use of a paper transfer, used like a ticket.
Imagine, for 3 cents per child and 7 cents per adult, you could go up to 35 miles for one fare. Historic facts indicate 40 million passengers nationwide per day rode these cars. Passengers stared blankly around the inside of the car until an enterprising young man by the name of B.G. Collier formed the Association of Streetcar Advertisers sometime in the 1890s, when he was 19 years old.
A standard 21-by-11-inch piece of cardboard with a colorful and simple message would be placed in an elongated frame above the windows of the car. These cards, placed side by side, would number 32 per car and could be changed every month.
Now, that is where the rare collectability comes into play.
These colorful messages of products would be discarded or destroyed. Some inventive persons found very useful ideas such as insulation or leveling linoleum floors. Also, collectors would search for cards with their favorite product or unique artwork and the hobby became popular – collecting “trolley cards.”
The size of each was perfect for framing and hanging above doorways or window soffits. As in any collectible, avid trolley card fanatics would search for art styles, humor, and cards with popular trademarks. Cards produced pre-1920 were generally produced using stone lithography and were 100% artist inspired.
In our show days, my wife and I sold hundreds of car cards and were known to be “buyers.” A lady from Vancouver, British Columbia heard from her relative of our search and decided to sell a good quantity of her cards at a very fair price.
These cards were Canadian printed and differed from the U.S. versions for Wrigley’s Gum and Ex-Lax. She sent 50 to us and – lo and behold – during our first showing in New Jersey we sold all 50 cards to a very excited man who was a fine art collector. He was the son of one of America’s largest cosmetic firms. He later kept in touch for more “artsy” advertising.
Initially, typical prices per card would be $25 to $40 each. Today, if you could find attractive cards they would cost $300 and up. Recently a Coca Cola card in perfect condition sold for $1,200!
Readers of this column are familiar with the saying, “Those days are gone forever,” but relish in reminiscing about those days of the streetcar. It’s also good to know personally that all those cards that passed through our hands are somewhere in someone’s collection for a temporary time, until passed on to another.
Last week we received a note from Dolly of Allentown, Pa., who, like us, is 90 years old. She stated, “With all the crazy things going on in the world be happy by enhancing your hobby or start a collection.” Amen, Dolly. Our happiest days were when we were very active in buying and selling and meeting wonderful long-time friends.
You too can put some happy times in your life – collect something. Finally, to repeat a phrase from the opening and Judy Garland, we hope our message “pulled at your heartstrings.”
Jerry Glenn, former owner of Legends and Reminisce gift shop, currently is appraising trading card collections.