In my school days, in the school playground, during periods of warm, dry weather, it was the cigarette card season that provided the most fun of the fair, the most hoopla, and the most noisy roll-up-and-see-the-great-big-so-and-so type of showmanship.
The cigarette cards produced by the major tobacco companies were all of a standard size and weight. Thus they could all be used against one another in straight competition and creative trickery.
The most popular way of manipulating a cigarette card in competition was by flicking it through the air, launched from between curved fingers that straightened out at the final one-thousandth of a second to impart direction and impetus. The pride, skill and prowess in performing this action was used to entice juvenile punters into games and contests by dozens of young, shrill entrepreneurs.
At the height of the season, scores of ground level fun-fair-type stalls of great and small ingenuity were established around the outside walls of the main school building down a narrow part of the playground protected from the winds by the big bicycle shed. Here, competitors were encouraged to try and flick their cards into specially chalked rectangles and circles, cover certain cards already in place on the ground with their own, fly through suspended rings and other obstacles or knock over carefully balanced objects. It was all very simple. If you won, you took possession of the stall owner’s bait cards; if you lost, he would take your flicked card. But every stall was different and cleverly thought-up new games, old favourites and the loud calls and tempting enticements from stall owners to drum up business all added to the fun and games. When the school bell sounded, cardboard game accessories, coloured sticks of chalk, wads of cards won by hard work or trickery, and other impedimenta of the trade were gathered up into paper bags ready for the next session at playtime or dinner hour.
The cards themselves were highly educational. One numbered card of a usual set of fifty was enclosed in every packet of cigarettes. They showed a picture of the subject on the front with written information on the back on subjects as diverse as civil aircraft, film stars, birds, inventions, historical figures and flowers. For a penny, the cigarette makers would provide an attractive album in which to paste them. Some such completed collections and albums are of considerable value today.
So at that time, no discarded empty cigarette packet was left unexamined by a passing boy or girl. No smoker on top of a London bus was left unasked if he had a card to give away and the precious cards were constantly swapped and bartered to make up the highly-desired completed sets.
But though these cards held their fascination and intrinsic collecting value the whole year through, their playground season would eventually come to an end and something like marbles would overtake them.