For over 125 years, non-sports cards have been part of American popular culture. Since 1880, animals, actors and politicians (yes, there is some obvious overlap there) have been featured on varieties of trading cards. Nature, historical and political subjects dominated the early period of trading cards well into the 1930’s. After all, back in the days before talking movies, political and historical figures were the stars of the day.
In 1935, non-sports cards dramatically changed because of a talking mouse. The 1935 Gum, Inc. R89 Mickey Mouse series was a breakout set in the history of non-sport. The success of the set based around a cartoon star led to sets of other pop culture icons of the day. After delving back into history with the gruesome Horrors of War set in 1938, Gum Inc. followed up with the epic 1940 Superman and Lone Ranger sets. To this day, these four sets remain among the most important and valuable non-sport issues.
In the 1950’s Topps hit the non-sport jackpot almost every year with sets capturing the popular craze du jour; 1951 Jets, Rockets, Spacemen, 1952 Wings, 1953 Antique Autos, 1955 Rails and Sails, 1956 Davy Crockett and Elvis Presley and 1958 Zorro.
As popular as those series were, none had the shock value or staying power of the 1962 Mars Attacks. With captions and illustrations such as “Charred by Martians” and “Death in the Cockpit,” these cards amped up the carnage. For the mainstream, the Beatles and Batman dwarfed all others with a total of 10 Topps releases between the two properties.
From the late 1960’s to the late 1990’s the number of releases increased exponentially. The Wacky Packages line featuring parodies of popular consumer products became one of the best selling non-sport properties in history and is still produced today.
Science fiction exploded, led of course by Star Wars and its myriad sequels. In fact, the single most valuable entertainment card from the past 50 years is the 1993 Star Wars Galaxy II P3 promo card of Yoda. Pulled from production after not being approved by George Lucas, a small amount escaped destruction and traded as high as $2,000.
Today, thanks to innovation by Inkworks and Donruss, entertainment packs offer the opportunity to receive both autographed and celebrity-worn clothing cards from musicians as well as actors and politicians. It seems we have come full circle.