America's Great Boxing Cards
Above: A rare 1921 advertising placard
Exhibit cards were the first nationally distributed sports card product sold without any ancillary uses or purposes. The cards were not for advertising nor were they product premiums. They themselves were the product. A store or arcade owner purchased an ESCO vending machine and ESCO sold them refill products for the machines. ESCO made its real money on the refill orders, not on the machines. The cards were dispensed for a penny (later, a nickel or dime) to the patron of the store or arcade. ESCO sold refill cards direct to vendors, although in the 1960’s the company did package its cards into celluloid wrappers for direct sales to consumers (the fact that the company was out of business only a few years after trying direct sales of card packs is proof of the effectiveness of the strategy).
The Site For Boxing Card Knowledge
There is an Exhibit card featured at the top of every page of this site, a 1928 Ray Miller. Who was Ray Miller? The #1 ranked lightweight contender, the only man to K.O. HOFer Jimmy McLarnin. Ray was my cousin and learning about his career spurred me on to collecting boxing cards.
Wanna learn more? I have an entire chapter in my book devoted to Exhibit cards, which happen to be my favorite cards...
Without a doubt the most important issuer of boxing cards was the Chicago-based Exhibit Supply Company. Beginning with its inaugural issue of 1921 and continuing until about 1971 when its last boxing cards were printed, the Exhibit Supply Company, or “ESCO” as its diamond-shaped logo said, was the unparalleled card manufacturer/chronicler of boxers.
Above: ca. 1926 Table of Comparisons
Exhibit cards are postcard-sized and generally blank-backed, although from 1921 to 1928, ESCO issued its boxing cards with invaluable biographies and/or statistics on their backs and with copyright dates. This practice was unique to the boxing issues of the company from 1921-1928. Fronts are generally printed in a single color halftone screen, although variations in inks and paper colors in certain sets lead to a rainbow of colors. From 1921-1926, the cards were all black and white. The 1927 set was sepia. In 1928, colors were introduced. From about 1930 to the end of the run, the company basically alternated between sepia and green inks on white stock. Exceptions and variations to this “rule” exist. No one really knows how many cards exist for any given run of Exhibit boxing cards, not even the years with dated, copyrighted cards. What is known is that ESCO printed its cards in 32-card sheets. Popular lore thus has it that the sets should be in multiples or divisors of 32 (e.g., 8, 16). This popular assumption is demonstrably false. ESCO blended sets together routinely from the 1920’s all the way through the end and had the unfortunate habit of pulling cards and altering cards in mid-run (which can be proven from certain baseball issues), as well as double printing cards and preparing multiple versions of the same subjects. When a celebrity attained a sufficient stature, ESCO made as many cards of him or her as it could. Jack Dempsey appears on an unknown number of miscellaneous cards, many of which are not yet catalogued. “Set” totals thus rarely add up to an exact print sheet or multiple of a print sheet, although it does not stop some dealers from ignorantly selling groupings of 32 cards as complete sets.
I have catalogued and checklisted several hundred different Exhibit boxing cards. Full checklists for each dated issue, all issues after 1930, and many miscellaneous issues like the Table of Comparisons issue shown above are included in my book. Here is a link to Lulu.com, where you can purchase the book and have it shipped directly to you:
In addition, I have an extensive checklist of film cards and cards of famous fighters who appeared in films, like Jack Dempsey, many of which are exceedingly rare. Here is an example and a personal favorite, a card of Jack Dempsey, Rudolph Valentino and Gene Delmont having a boxing lesson.