Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Card Collecting in the 1960s: Memories Packaged for a Nickel

I have a vivid childhood memory where a sea of kids cascade into a candy store that was located around the corner from my school, St. Joseph Patron. The year is 1966 and I  live in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York. It's lunch break, and a chaotic mass of hands are stretched out with change as the proprietor and his clerk feverishly dole out Milky Ways, Charleston Chews, Cokes, Chocolate Cows, Lays Potato Chips, Bazooka Joe bubble gum and other treats. On the counter are colorfully designed display boxes containing packs of cards. Along with the phenomenally popular Baseball cards, which just about every boy bought, there were many other cards designed to appeal to a young audience. These are referred to (although not by anyone at the time) as "Non-Sports Cards." To those growing up back then, they were a part of the pop culture firmament. Like cartoons, monster movies and comic books, they always existed in our world. And at a nickel a pack they were readily available to almost everyone. In this piece I'll take a look back at some of the cards I fondly recall collecting all those years ago. 

The 1966 Batman TV show was enormously popular, which led to a merchandising explosion, from toys and models to records and coloring books. Topps, one of the biggest producers of trading cards, designed an initial set consisting of 55 cards, penciled by Bob Powell, a versatile artist whose work in comic books spanned a period from 1930 to the 1960s. Powell's efforts appeared at Quality, Magazine Enterprises, Street and Smith, Harvey and Atlas/Marvel, among others. Norman Saunders then painted the art, adding another layer of drama to the composition. Saunders was a talented painter who produced covers for Pulps and comics. He was in demand at Topps, crafting the popular 1962 Mars Attacks cards (also over Powell art; with initial designs by the great Wally Wood) and later created Wacky Packs, another successful card set. Topps employed many other comic book artists over the years, including Jack Davis, Tom Sutton, Jack Kirby (who drew spot illos on the backs of their Baseball cards in 1960) and even one of the pioneers of Underground comics, Robert Crumb. As a kid I was totally enthralled by these images, and in the present day I'm still impressed by their efforts. 
The backs of cards often told a story and might impart information related to the image on the front or was a puzzle piece - another reason to complete your collection. The Batman cards cannily employed both methods. The first series included a dramatic narrative; the second set was adorned with mini-puzzles of Batman and Robin, the Joker, Riddler, etc. with explanatory copy  on the right side.    

The Monkees was a hit TV show on NBC in 1966. The original concept was conceived to be a fictional group capitalizing on The Beatles (who had a card set of their own). Initially, professional musicians did most of the tunes, but soon the screen Monkees played their own instruments, headlining hits by songwriters Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart and Neil Diamond. With their overwhelming popularity it's no surprise that the Monkees had several card sets produced between 1966-68. Above is an example produced by Donruss. I was a huge fan at the time and likely collected the cards with whatever spare change I acquired, although my older brother John recalls buying all (or most) of the Batman cards on his own.     

The Green Hornet was a masked crimefighter whose radio show debuted in 1936. The character also appeared in comic books and serials. The Hornet was brought to television screens in 1966 by producer William Dozier, the man responsible for  Batman's success on the small screen. Lightning didn't strike twice, though, and the show lasted just one season. Unlike Batman, The Green Hornet wasn't played for laughs; he often fought ordinary criminals and stayed truer to its original premise. Van Williams starred as Britt Reid/The Hornet and Bruce Lee played his aide Kato. In a few years Lee would become recognized for popularizing Kung Fu in a run of movies. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't make special note of the Green Hornet's theme music, "Flight of the Bumblebee." It was written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1900 and was closely associated with The character from his earliest appearances on radio, in serials, and most famously, Al Hirt's exciting rendition for the TV show. In 1941 popular band leader Harry James released a version that topped the charts. Donruss produced the 44 card set.   

 Image taken from page 19; panel 5 of Amazing Spider-Man # 19, December 1964. Steve Ditko art.  

I was already immersed in Marvel's entire comics line of heroes, thanks to older brother John, who had been collecting them for several years, so you can imagine the thrill when they had their own card set! The display box utilized art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and all the characters, with the exception of Spider-Man and Daredevil, were concurrently appearing in the syndicated Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon. The 66 card Donruss set incorporated panels from Marvel's comics 
(drawn by Kirby, Ditko, Don Heck, John Romita, Bob Powell and Wally Wood) with humorous dialogue substituting for Stan Lee's original.  
The back of the MSH cards formed a montage of figures, with the images lifted from various covers.
Jack Kirby pencils (inks by Vince Colletta; Dick Ayers and John Romita) on all, except Spider-Man, drawn by Steve Ditko, which was sourced from a 1965 poster. Worth pointing out are the glaring coloring errors (which I even noticed as a youngster), particularly on the attire of two heroes. Thor's legs were bare, lacking blue tights, the boots were only partially yellow and his mystical hammer lacked gray tones. Captain America, whose costume embodied the American flag and Americana in general, had gloves, boots and sections of his shield inexplicably colored yellow. In addition, the star on his chest, sleeves and alternating stripes across his waist - which should have been white - were doused with blobs of blue and red. The Hulk fared slightly better - but no purple pants, and it looks like the colorist ran out of green before he completed the job! Image from Heritage Auctions.      

The MSH wrapper sported head shots of Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Daredevil, Thor and the Hulk staring out at its audience. Art by Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (all the rest - with the exception of Thor, drawn by Marie Severin. That image may have been hastily inserted, since the character's long golden locks are missing). How could you resist if you had 5 cents in your pocket?    

Dark Shadows was a supernatural-themed daytime serial that appealed to a large adolescent audience. No surprise that it rated two card sets in 1968-69, produced by the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Company. The above card is from the second set, featuring a photo of Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins. I'd go into more detail, as I've been an enthusiast of the show since it first aired, but instead I'll point you to two excellent YouTube videos which provide THAT minutia, and you can see every card there as well. Tell Alan Nick Caputo sent you!  

When I was buying the DS cards at a local newsstand in 1969 I happened to purchase the last pack. My friend Joe urged me to ask the proprietor if I could have the display box. He gave it to me with no qualms but over the years that item was lost. Display boxes are a rarity, specifically because they were trashed by store owners, who obviously had no idea they would have future collectability. 

One last Dark Shadows item. Yours truly was recently a guest on Terror at Collinwood, a delightful podcast hosted by Danielle Gelehrter, aka Penny Dreadful. Our conversation also crossed over into comic books, Steve Ditko, the Gold Key Dark Shadows comics, and other related tales: 

    Top of the World, Ma! Charlton Heston becomes a star of bubble gum cards!

Planet of the Apes was a blockbuster movie that captured the attention of children and adults alike. Premiering in early 1968 the film featured a sterling cast headed by Charlton Heston. When Topps was given the rights to produce a card set based on the movie, including photos of the actors, the star initially did not approve. Eventually he was convinced that it would be a quality product and he allowed them to use his images on nine out of 44 cards. 

In addition to tie-ins with TV and movies many cards were geared  to its audiences sillier side, such as Topps Wacky Packages, which debuted in 1969. Heavily influenced by MAD, It satirized well-known products and their advertising campaigns. Tom Sutton, whose art in comic books skillfully balanced between horror and humor, illustrated a majority of the cards. While I can't definitively say that I immediately recognized Sutton's art from comics, I was always good at identifying distinctive styles and almost certainly noticed that this was the same guy drawing many of the super-hero satires in Marvel's Not Brand Echh around the same time. You can see all of Tom's Wacky Packages (and much more) at this site:      


The 1950s Superman TV show was a hit with kids for decades. George Reeves as both Clark Kent and the Man of Steel had a charm that resonated with the youth growing up in that era - even those that didn't follow the Superman comics! Topps issued a set in 1966, although it continued to be distributed in stores until 1970, which is around the time I believe I purchased them. I recall them being on display on the countertop of my neighborhood grocery store, around the corner from where I lived in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. 

Finally, Topps 1969 Man on the Moon cards was a must-have for kids witnessing the thrill of space travel and the opportunity to see the moon landing live. There were two sets produced, one leading up to the landing and a second set in 1970 that added 44 cards to the original 55, including photos of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the surface of the moon. These cards, I noticed, were priced at ten cents. A sign that times were changing in more ways than one!

From a personal standpoint, card collecting transports me back to a different time and place. In the 1960s there was absolutely no thought of preserving them for future financial value; they were shared or traded with friends and fellow collectors. In those pre-internet/computer/smartphone days, cards were often a keepsake of memories, particularly with movies and TV shows. Imagine a world where you didn't have images, music or movies at your fingertips; you either had to buy them (in the case of records), wait for them to appear on TV (popular movies) or find photos in magazines. It was much more of an effort to track things down. And perhaps due to that it made these items all the more special. 

Akin to comic books and rock and roll, cards catered to the interests of pre-teens and teenagers, distinctly apart from the concerns - and often understanding - of parents or adults. There was a sense of satisfaction (Mick Jagger notwithstanding) in completing a set, of finding that ONE card you needed. With just a nickel in your hand and a trip to the candy store you were immersed in a world of imagination. 

1976 Topps New York Yankees team photo. Chambliss! Guidry! Hunter! Lyle! Munson! Nettles! Pinella! White! Billy Martin! Those were the days!  

I just HAD to close out with a baseball card, since they were traded and collected by every kid. The Brooklyn-based Topps company was the preeminent manufacturer of sports cards, and, along with Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum, which cost a penny, they were part of the childhood of many who grew up in the 1960s.     


Kid said...

I had the Batman cards when I was a kid, though instantly disposed of the disgusting 'confectionery' as it repulsed me. I bought the deluxe edition of the cards when they were reissued in 1989 and still have them today. The Monkees cards seem to ring a bell, so I may've had some of them as well in the '60s, though don't know why if I did. The other ones are unknown to me.

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Kid, I also have the Batman reissue. Alas, none of my original cards survived over the decades

Anonymous said...

Somehow, most of my Superman and Green Hornet cards survived, plus my Rat Patrol collection. My fave Batman-drawn cards did not, (probably sold them) tho I did have the reissue briefly. It was a great set. Of course, the card of Catwoman, beautifully drawn in close-up, was favorite.

Nick Caputo said...

Glad to hear some of your cars survived from those long ago days. I do recall the Rat Patrol cards (and show) and may have had a few.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

I have the Rat Patrol set, but sadly none of the rings that were inserted into the series as bonus cards....alas....still have 95% of my gum cards from when I was a kid including many of the ones mentioned throughout this page. I regret losing my sets of Odd Rods and Silly Cycles down through the ages, but they were from competitors of Topps, Donruss, I believe! Great article!!!

Nick Caputo said...


I'm glad to hear you still have many of your original cards. Odd Rods and Silly Cycles sounds familiar. I have to look them up.

And thanks for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

I remember sports cards,mostly starting in 1961 when the Senators came to Minnesota as the Twins. I also remember Civil War cards,
that came with a replica confederate paper money.But what really got me going were the Beatles cards.I am now chasing down the few Black Bat cards to finish my set.About 15 to go.

Nick Caputo said...

I believe my brother collected Civil War cards and probably had the Beatles. My Dad was a NY Yankees fan and we had our share of Topps cards.

Good luck completing your set!

AirPiratePress said...

Great post ... I had the Batman movie gum cards in the 1960s. In the last couple of years I've managed to get another set of those, along with the Red Bat, Blue Bat and Black Bat sets. The other set I loved (and have since re-acquired) is the Man From UNCLE set. Weirdly, we didn't get Mars Attacks here in the UK till 1965, though somehow I missed those at the time ...

Alan McK.

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Alan,

It's great that you were able to acquire those Batman sets. The Man from Uncle was another great show and worth collecting as a card set. It's always interesting to learn what other kids enjoyed collecting.

And thank you for the kind words.