Arbuckle Trade Cards: Recognizing and Finding Originals

Updated October 19, 2021
trade card from the Arbuckle Coffee Company

For those who admire images from the Victorian period, Arbuckle trade cards are a very appealing collectors item. Originally developed as a publicity tool for Arbuckle Brothers Coffee Company in the late 19th century as a means of increasing coffee sales, these cards have become a highly collectible item for card collectors today.

The Arbuckle Coffee Company

Operated by brothers John and Charles Arbuckle, the Arbuckle Brothers Coffee Company was the world's largest importer and seller of coffee during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century. While the company's greatest accomplishment was perhaps the development of technology allowing sealed paper packages of coffee to be mass produced, what the organization is most recognized for today are its promotional trade cards.

Origins of Arbuckle Trade Cards

The Arbuckle brothers were marketers ahead of their time. Arbuckle trade cards are an early example of a customer loyalty program. These cards were distributed exclusively as inserts inside packages of Arbuckle Brothers coffee.

Arbuckle Coffee depicting a map of North Carolina

Unless you purchased the company's coffee on an ongoing basis, there was no way for you to add cards to your collection. In order to encourage consumers to collect the trade cards, the cards were created in several different numbered series, effectively compelling collectors to purchase more coffee in order to complete their sets.

In order to assist collectors who received duplicate cards, the Arbuckle brothers suggested that customers trade cards with their neighbors and friends so as to get which ones that they needed to complete their sets, thus beginning the concept of trading cards.

How to Identify Arbuckle Trade Cards

The Arbuckle cards were printed in a number of different designs, and each of the cards has a color lithograph image on the front side. Images include depictions of animals, families, flowers, historical themes, humorous sketches, pictures of far away places, landscapes, maps, religious images, sports and pastimes, still-life scenes, and others.

The backs of the cards vary from one set of cards to the next, perhaps as a marketing strategy designed to build a sense of excitement about finding out what would be on the next card in the next package of coffee. Some of the backs are completely blank, like traditional postcards, while others have advertising slogans printed on them. Some of the cards even have Victorian era recipes on the back, such as with this 1889 card that details various cherry dessert recipes.

Specific Arbuckle Card Designs

These unique trading cards were printed with classic Victorian illustrations spanning all sorts of different subjects. Many of these topics centered around the wonders of the world, whether it was the natural landscape or the animals that inhabited it. These are some of the card categories which Arbuckle released:

  • Cooking
  • Sports & pasttimes
  • State maps
  • Trip around the world
  • U.S. pictorial history
  • Zoological natural history album
  • Satire
  • Animals (such as birds)
Arbuckle Trade Card from Austria

Add Arbuckle Cards to Your Collection

If you're interested in starting an Arbuckle collection or adding to an existing one, eBay and Etsy usually have an excellent selection of cards for sale on any given day. Local antique shops, flea markets, antique auctions, and estate sales can also be an excellent resource for locating these antique trade cards.

The Trade Card Place is another stellar resource for those who are interested in collecting Arbuckle cards, as well as other types of Victorian collectible cards. This website contains information about upcoming events of interest to collectors, books and articles specific to Victorian trade cards, and other relevant information. Additionally, The Trade Card Place holds monthly online auctions for those interested in adding to their collections.

Arbuckle Trade Card Values

Arbuckle trading card collectors are serious about their wares, as most trading card collectors are. Yet, these cards make for a great introduction to the world of card collecting since most of them sell for anywhere between $10-15 on average. For example, almost all of the many late 1880s Arbuckle cards listed on Collectors.com (sourced mostly from eBay listings) are priced around $15 give or take.

trade card promoting Arbuckle Coffees from Arizona

In the current market, you can purchase these 19th century pieces of ephemera for incredibly cheap. For instance, a set of six cooking cards sold for almost $14 in one auction and an individual animal card sold for $1.50. Thus, if you're short on cash but have a case of the 'collecting bug,' these Arbuckle coffee trading cards are a great option for you.

How to Keep Track of Your Collection

Finding new cards to add to your collection is an entertaining challenge, and viewing and displaying your collection can be highly enjoyable. However, keeping track of your inventory of cards can be quite another matter. If you're looking for a way to organize your collection of Arbuckle cards, be sure to check out My ArbyCards, a shareware database developed by avid Arbuckle collector Jeffry Buck. This inexpensive software application is a great way to simplify the process of keeping up with which cards you have and which ones to look for on your next trade card hunting expedition.

Take a Sip of These Collectibles

Arbuckle Coffee trading cards give you a glimpse into the unique advertising world of the late-19th century. Take a step back in time and deck out your office walls, scrapbooks, or holiday cards with these low-cost Victorian collectibles.

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Arbuckle Trade Cards: Recognizing and Finding Originals