When Cigarettes Came with a Prize

Nearly 200 years before McDonald’s debuted the Happy Meal, tobacco companies figured out that consumers like a prize with their purchase. In the 1850s, they enclosed cigarette cards in the packaging. As with baseball cards, the front featured an image and the back information.

In the early months of COVID, when the American government offered its citizens little trustworthy guidance, I thought about “Air Raid Precautions.” During World War II, W.D. & H.O. Willis, the first UK company to mass produce cigarettes, teamed up with the British government to produce 50 cards with emergency instructions that ranged from how to handle protective gear to what to do doing a balloon barrage to how to outfit a bomb shelter. 

These cards, purchased in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and other countries, convey a lot about the norms and values of the day.

Brands encouraged loyalty by producing series.

In the 20th century, gelatin silver photographs and paper toy cut-outs were introduced.


By the 1950s, studies in America and the UK established a link between smoking and the high risk of death from lung cancer and other diseases. Within a decade, the production of cigarette cards ceased.

To learn more, look at the 49,697 the NYPL has digitized and read Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette: A Political History

See you next week! Until then, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram and the books I’ve mentioned on Bookshop and Amazon.