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Even as the American frontier faded with the setting sun in the late 19th century, early mythmakers started to spin a romantic vision of the West populated by straight, strong heroes who could do no evil. As early as 1873 dime novelist Ned Buntline had cajoled real-life Army scouts Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro into headlining his touring production Scouts of the Plains. The stage shows played especially well to Eastern audiences, and the tobacco industry soon found a means of exploiting the Western myth to move more product.

For years cigarette makers had been inserting cardboard stiffeners into their flimsy paper packs. But with the introduction of chromolithography in 1875 Richmond-based Allen & Ginter transformed its blank stiffeners into colorful cards printed with images of baseball players, Indian chiefs and the like. Other firms followed suit, and the modern-day trading card was born. Among the popular early subjects was Cody, who in 1883 founded his celebrated Wild West traveling exhibition. Buffalo Bill carried his vision of the mythic West through the turn of the century and passed the torch to early filmmakers eager to replicate his success.

By 1909 Cody had returned from his eighth European tour, and the Western film genre was set to explode with such stars as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and William S. Hart. By then American Tobacco Co. had lassoed most of the domestic tobacco market. But founder James Buchanan Duke was always fishing for new sales gimmicks, and that year in packs of Hassan cigarettes his company introduced the Cowboy Series of tobacco cards depicted below. What set them apart were the authentic subject matter and entertaining descriptions, from which we’ve drawn the accompanying captions. The set that cost a nickel a card in 1909 now sells for $150 and up.

Happy hunting! WW

Dave Lauterborn has been managing editor of Wild West since 2008 and a trading card collector since the third grade.

(Courtesy Huggins & Scott Auctions,


Around the turn of the 20th century a body could buy a 10-pack of Hassan Cork Tip Cigarettes for a nickel — one-quarter the cost of other Turkish-style brands. In an effort to drive off competition from imports, J.B. Duke of American Tobacco Co. had blended Turkish and domestic leaf to create Hassan and other “Oriental Smokes” at a lower price point. In 1907 the company started inserting collectible cards in packs of such brands to further boost sales. By 1911 — before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered its dissolution — American Tobacco controlled 90 percent of the domestic tobacco market, netting more than $30 million a year.

No small change at a nickel a pack.

HIS FAVORITE BRAND — A supply of something to smoke is as much a necessity of a cowboy’s outfit as a good saddle and bridle. They no longer have the trouble of making their own cigarettes, when such good ones may be bought cheaply.

THE LARIAT DANCE — The vaqueros like to go where there is music and dancing, and from a trick some of them had of flourishing their lariats about at the baille was evolved the famous lariat dance. As done by an expert, this is a remarkable performance.

ON THE MOVE — The life of the first cowman was a wandering one. Their pasture was the “free range,” hundreds of thousands of square miles where any man was free to let his cattle feed. The sky was their roof, and their home wherever they pitched camp.

THROWING A STEER — The instant the noose settles, the pony braces his legs and stands like a rock for the shock he knows is coming. As soon as the rope is taut, the steer goes over with a crash, and the cowboys can easily tie him and look him over.

REPAIRING A BREAK — At first the hands on a fenced-in ranch were contemptuously called “pliers men” by the old-time cowpunchers. There were many breaks that never got there by accident. The old-timers have gradually become reconciled to the new conditions.

THE MAVERICK — If a steer has grown to be two years old without being branded, there is sure to be a hot struggle before he is finally roped and tied. After the iron has been put on him and he is let up, the nearest man, unless he dodges very quickly, will get a good toss.

DARNING HIS SOCKS — About the last thing the cowboy thinks of is looking after his own clothes. There are times, however, when his socks must be mended. A man who can do all kinds of things with a lariat will have great struggles with a darning needle.

GETTING THE HORSE THIEF — If, as sometimes happened, one of them had such a lead on his pursuers that a shot from the ready Winchester was needed to stop him, the cowboys who tumbled him from his saddle thought no more of doing it than of killing a coyote or rattlesnake.

HEADING A STAMPEDE — Anything may start the cattle—the bark of a coyote, the plunge of a horse, or a sudden storm, and the whole herd will be off in one mad rush. Only by reckless and skillful riding can the cowboys get to the front of the maddened animals and turn them.

ROPING A STEER — Our artist has pictured a cowboy who, seeing one of his companions indulging in the pastime of riding a steer, has made that animal’s neck the target for his noose. Neither the steer nor his rider know what will happen next.

SKINNING A BUFFALO — When the cattle industry was young, men sent out by the first ranchmen often came across buffalo. The opportunity to get fresh meat was thankfully accepted, and the hides of the buffalo were valuable additions to the bedding of the outfit.

QUEEN OF THE RANCH — Such a girl, as she goes out to the roundup dressed cowboy style and carrying a smaller edition of his weapons, is the idol of every man on the ranch. Their one dread is that she will grow up to marry some “dude from the East.”

MAKING A TENDERFOOT DANCE — Any tenderfoot who made himself obtrusive was considered fair game. A popular means of having fun with him was to make him dance to the music of a big Colt, which spattered an occasional bullet under his feet to make him step higher.

SHOOTING UP THE TOWN — There was always a lively time in the nearest settlement when a roundup was over, and the cowboys came in for a little celebration. They always dashed into town at top speed, yelling like coyotes and punctuating the noise with the cracks of their long .45s.

AT THE THEATER — Cowboys are always among the most enthusiastic of the audience at any performance on the boards of the local “opera house.” They will be found seated down in front and consider it proper to criticize the performance freely and audibly.

PLAYING CRACK-LOO — Sometimes the cowboys chose to have a little fun on their own account, like this band playing “crack loo,” a variation of the schoolboy’s game of pitch-penny. The only difference was that they cheerfully pitched gold pieces instead of coppers.

LASSOING A GRIZZLY — If several of the boys were together, entirely careless of the fact that a grizzly at close quarters is a most dangerous animal, it was the height of their ambition to rope and throw him. They had absolute confidence in their own skill and their ponies’ agility.

HELPING THE SHERIFF — More than once a posse sent after a horse thief reported that “the prisoner unfortunately escaped.” One such was said to have “jumped over a bluff and received fatal injuries.” The coroner found that the fatal injuries consisted of two bullet holes.

FIGHTING THE PRAIRIE FIRE — Some go to work back-firing a broad strip around the corrals and ranch buildings. Others, riding in pairs, drag the hides or split carcasses of freshly killed steers over the flames. Nobody thinks about slacking work, eating or sleeping till the fire is checked.

A PARTING SHOT — When a tough character took to stealing horses, he was an outlaw indeed. If discovered, he knew what to expect. Such a one, having gained a lead on his pursuers, cannot resist the temptation to fire one last defiant shot before he disappears in the wild passes.

(Courtesy Claude Emond)


Among the most collectible of the Cowboy Series is the missing 50th card. Though the set is numbered 1–50, American Tobacco reportedly considered the subject matter of “An Exciting Game” too risqué and never issued it. New Jersey–based Weber Baking Co. and Canadian candy manufacturers Ganong Bros. and Hamilton Chewing Gum later reissued the Cowboy Series with slight variations. Both included the “missing” card, a clean copy of which can fetch $500 or more at auction. Still, it doesn’t hold a candle to American Tobacco’s 1909 Honus Wagner card, one of which sold in 2007 for $2.8 million. Seems baseball remains a more exciting game.