Back in the days when passenger trains were one of the main ways to move about the American continent, railroad lines had playing cards decorated with RR company logos and images of trains passing through spectacular scenery. The passengers needed a way to pass the time and playing card games was one way to while away the hours. The decks of cards were valuable on the trip and were kept as mementos of the journey, though not particularly valuable at the time. A more complete explanation of the history of railroad cards can be found here.
Today, aficionados of railroad memorabilia collect vintage railroad playing cards from historic railway lines for their historic and collectible value as well as the sheer beauty of the images on the cards. Sealed, unopened decks of railroad cards and wide railroad playing cards are highly prized, as are playing cards from prominent railways, but the most valuable cards tend to be sold as single “swap” railroad playing cards.
Researching recent sales of vintage railroad playing cards, I came across a couple of interesting examples. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in 1933 came up with a mascot cat named Chessie who had two kittens named Nip and Tuck in 1935 and, in an interesting order of events, acquired a mate named Peake in 1937. The image at right shows a set of the promotional decks of playing cards depicting Chessie and her kittens with the marketing slogan, “Sleep like a kitten in air conditioned comfort” on the original box and “Sleep like a kitten” printed on each individual card. This set recently sold on eBay for $45.
Chessie, Peake, Nip and Tuck were popular advertising mascots and the goodwill attached to the mother cat’s name resulted in her name being adopted for the Chessie System company, which was created in 1972 by merging the C&O Railway with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Western Maryland Railway. Chessie the cat’s image was incorporated into the Chessie System’s “Ches-C” logo.
Among the most prized single swap cards are Jokers and Ace of Spades cards. One of the most expensive ones to sell recently on eBay shows how much our culture has changed since the early days of rail travel. It is a Joker from the Burlington Route and features an incredibly racist image of a black conductor holding a railroad lantern and saying, “De Burlington am de best.”
The image would drive away customers and attract civil rights lawyers today, but at the time it must have been considered cute and funny. Companies, especially those in service industries like travel, do not generally set out to offend customers, yet looking at the image today, it is hard to imagine that it was not considered offensive at the time.
Offensive or not, this was one of the most expensive single railroad playing cards to sell in the past few months on eBay, fetching $69.55 at auction. This one has a prominent water stain, a small tear, and a couple of crease marks, but condition issues did not detract from the value very much, since only one swap card sold for more money during that time. It is probably a very scarce card. It is a bit hard to believe that anyone kept it around and a bit strange that someone wants to own it today, but I suppose the only thing worse than displaying offensive parts of our history would be burying them in the trash and pretending they did not happen.