As the card companies continue to deliver a bumper crop of retro-themed (recycled) set designs and concepts, I thought it would be good to turn around and look into the Hobby’s storied past to learn a bit more about these vintage sets. In a way, it will be like remembering the aluminum cans that became a swing set or, perhaps a better analogy, the 1957 Chevy that became a batch of die-cast elephants (because the companies are generally taking beautiful and original designs and recycling them into common junk). To kick things off, let’s take a look back at the legendary 1894 Mayo set:
In 1894, the P.H. Mayo tobacco company produced the first ever set of collectible cards to feature only football players, the 1894 Mayo Cut Plug set. The 35-card set only contained players from the “Big Three” Ivy League schools, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as these colleges were by far the most dominant in the young sport at the time. The simple cards were small by modern standards, measuring just 1 5/8″ x 2 7/8″ and featured a sepia-toned portrait on a black frame that contained the player’s last name and school and the Mayo Cut Plug logo. The card backs were completely blank and black and the cards were not numbered in any fashion. One of the cards did not identify the player shown and early checklists simply listed this card as “Anonymous”, although the player has since been identified as John Dunlop of Harvard. The cards were distributed in tins of P.H. Mayo chewing tobacco.
1894 Mayo Cut Plug cards featuring Harvard, Princeton, and Yale football players
Over 100 years later, card companies began creating sets that paid tribute to the 1894 May Cut Plug set. The first to do so was Donruss in 2002 when they created the Donruss 1894 set that was inserted into packs of 2002 Gridiron Kings. The set actually holds fairly true to the original design. The card fronts feature a black-and-white portrait (rather than sepia-toned) of the player on a black frame that contains the player’s full name (rather than his last name), position (in place of the player’s team/college), and his team’s logo (in place of the Mayo Cut Plug logo). This set also replaced the “For Chewing and Smoking” motto in the lower right-hand corner with “For Collecting & Trading”. Rather than plain black backs, the 2002 Donruss 1894 set featured a foil stamped serial number #/1,000, a card number (MC-#), and various manufacturer logos. For a great side-by-side comparision, please click here. Donruss repeated the set in 2003 Gridiron Kings, with the only notable change being the cards were serial numbered to 600.
2002 Gridiron Kings Donruss 1894 #MC-7 Emmitt Smith
In 2008, Topps created a new 1894 Mayo throwback set. While standard-sized, the card fronts actually held fairly true to the original set with the only notable changes being full color player portraits and the retention of “For Collecting and Trading” motto used by Donruss rather than the original “For Chewing and Smoking” motto of the original 1894 Mayos. Similar to the hugely successful Allen & Ginter baseball set, 2008 Topps Mayo included many short print subjects and a host of various insert cards. One of these inserts was a mini parallel that replicated the small size of the original 1894 set and included a black-and-white portrait. The product was however marred by an inability to follow through with pre-release checklists, especially for autograph subjects.
2008 Topps Mayo & 2008 Topps Mayo Mini #111 Adrian Peterson
In 2009, Topps again made a Mayo throwback set, only this time they did not hold true to the classic set. The standard sized base set features full-color portraits on a white frame that barely resembles the 1894 design. The set much more closely resembles the popular Allen & Ginter baseball releases. Topps once again included a mini parallel that brought back the correct card dimensions and black-and-white photo, but the new white border was still present. Similar to 2008 Topps Mayo (and Allen & Ginter), the set included a plethora of short prints and various inserts.
2009 Topps Mayo & 2008 Topps Mayo Mini #191 Michael Crabtree
While no modern throwback set has been able to quite recapture the magic of the 1894 Mayo Cut Plug set, it is nice to see companies pay tribute to the founding father of football card sets, even if they are just recycling a classic design (and failing to get it right).
For more information on the original 1894 Mayo set, please visit these sites:
Nearmint’s Vintage Football Card Blog
The Harvard-Yale Football Gallery
Vintage Card Prices – 1894 Mayo Gallery (very nice gallery of all 35 card images, except for the Anonymous/John Dunlop card)