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A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

Card sets usually commemorate mere faddish celebrity, yet occasionally they honor the lastingly great. The '60s, a good decade for fame sets, brought Famous Americans stamps and Presidents & Famous Americans cards from Topps, a milk-carton series from ARO Milk, and -- best of all -- a beautiful British series I only discovered last year.

Measuring 68x37mm (1 7/16 x 2 11/16"), the Famous People cards resemble tobacco cards, but were "issued with Brooke Bond Tea and Tea Bags, Heathrow House, Cranford, Middx." (Middlesex). Fifty United Kingdom notables are "described" by Virginia Shankland and superbly illustrated by Scottish-born South African artist Angus McBride. McBride would later paint beautiful historical portraits for the Osprey Men-at-Arms line of miniatures painting guides, then a stunning Tolkien series for the Middle-Earth Roleplaying game. Brooke Bond tea buyers could buy a Famous People picture card album from grocers for six shillings, the cards now sell for $1-2 apiece in America, and now you know exactly as much about Famous People as I do. The set's date eludes me. It appeared after the 1967 knighthood of Famous Person #40, adventurer Sir Francis Chichester, but does not mention his death in August 1972.

Sir Francis who? Maybe you, like me, hadn't heard of Chichester's solo yacht trip around the world in 1966-67. And perhaps if you had prepared Famous People, you would not have ranked award-winning equestrienne Pat Smythe (born 1928) as the 49th most famous person in the world, let alone reserve #34 for Baron Birkett of Ulverston (barrister, judge, and Liberal Member of Parliament, 1883-1962). Rather than slight these people's achievements, let us reflect on fame's local nature. Even Americans know of Charles Darwin (4), Lewis Carroll (11), and George Bernard Shaw (18), but has their fame reached, say, Zambia or Uruguay? In Kathmandu, Time Machine author H. G. Wells (25) probably looms no larger than Baron Birkett.

Famous People also shows that different cultures rate achievement differently. Americans who have heard of Joseph Lister (1827-1912), pioneer of antiseptic surgery, might wonder if he invented Listerine mouthwash (nope). Famous People never says. Instead, card #9's piece on "Lord Lister" ends, "In 1897 he was the first medical man to be created a baron." The set strongly emphasizes baronies, knighthoods, and similar veddy British honours. Still, this European approach exhibits admirable literacy, unknown in American trading cards. Sample this entry:

SIR EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)

Edward Elgar, son of a music-seller and organist in Worcester, became the first British composer for 200 years to be acclaimed throughout the Western World. He taught himself to play several instruments, and at 22 became a bandmaster. In 1889 he married his pupil Alice Roberts, whose guidance was immensely valuable to him. In 1897 his Enigma Variations, a collection of musical portraits of his friends, brought him fame. The Dream of Gerontius and other choral, orchestral and chamber works followed. From 1924 Elgar was Master of the King's Music, but wrote little of importance after his wife died in 1920.

Remarkable, not only for succinctness but for taste. What American card set would ever popularize home-grown composers like Charles Ives or George Gershwin? R. Crumb drew Heroes of the Blues cards (1992), but his publishers never gave them away with tea bags! And taste differs across not only oceans but decades. In today's Britain, if Brooke Bond remade Famous People, would Elgar make the cut?

I used the phrase "lastingly great" above, but sets like Famous People remind us that even stature in history's pantheon can fade like celebrity, only on a slightly longer time scale. In the far future, perhaps only historians and collectors will keep their memories alive.

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, January 1999.

Copyright (C) 1999 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc.]

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