From marbles to cigarette cards or stamps... what Cork children collected down the ages

For some Cork children, it was marbles, for others cigarette cards or stamps... JO KERRIGAN hears about the acquisitive crazes of yesteryear.
From marbles to cigarette cards or stamps... what Cork children collected down the ages

Cigarette cards and a picture album to collect them in.

DID any of you see that item on TV the other morning, about a guy called Neil Scallan in the UK who collects different versions of the board game Monopoly?

He now has more than 3,000 sets — special editions, different languages, different cities, vintage, new... everything!

It got us thinking about the whole habit of collecting, and who chose what.

In 1950s Cork, it depended on how much (or how little) you had to spend, of course, but the instinct to collect seemed to have been born in every youngster.

For many, marbles were an early start; first the little hard ones and later the beautiful ‘glassy allies’. Competitions were fought to the bitter end to win more (or lose your favourites) with other kids, on any handy stretch of pavement.

Cigarette cards were a huge collecting craze back in the days when we had no idea that smoking was distinctly harmful.

Tobacco companies commissioned some exceptional artists to create their cards on every topic under the sun. Early ones tended to be on inspiring subjects such as fine historic buildings, great statesmen, railways, fine shrubs and flowers — and of course oceangoing ships. Later, movie stars and then football tended to take over.

Even tea companies like Brooke Bond got in on the act and many a housewife must have been driven mad by children pestering her to buy another packet and another...

The treasured cards could be stuck into special albums, which were available from the shops where the original purchase was made.

If you had no handy source close to hand for collecting the cards, or they were already snatched up by older siblings, then the sensible alternative was to collect cigarette packets. Noel Magnier and his friends on the Northside of Cork specialised in this, using the empty packs as currency for their card games, as he records in his biography Is That You Boy?

“The different brand makes were given a value rating by us, which would be agreed by all the other gangs in the surrounding area.

“The Woodbine packet would be valued at one pound, the Kerry Blue five pounds, Gold Flake twenty pounds, Craven A fifty pounds, and the Capstan was king at a hundred pounds.

“The boys and I used to check out hotels and banks for the rare and valuable Capstan box.”

Ogdens 1931 cigarette card.
Ogdens 1931 cigarette card.

Cigarette packets became a symbol of power and wealth among his crowd, explains Noel. “When you appeared at the top of the lane with your stack of ‘money’ for a game of Pontoon or Snap, you got measures of respect from your fellow card players.”

Richard says he used to collect matchboxes in his young days, and also match books. The smaller, flatter matchbooks were found in cafes and pubs, nightclubs... anywhere really that wanted to advertise itself.

Boxed matches came in two kinds: the ‘safety’ ones that needed the strip of sandpaper to strike, and those that could be struck on any firm surface.

“I remember being fascinated by men who could light them against their fingernail!” recalled Richard. 

“And I still have some of those old match books with the names of cafes or businesses long since disappeared.”

“I got the idea of collecting chocolate bar wrappers when I was young,” remembers Katie. “The limited range available in Cork shops — Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Fry’s Cream, and Urney’s Turkish Delight 4 — was soon exhausted, but relatives in England, who had access to a wider selection, were reminded to send over their exotic versions when they had consumed the contents thereof.

Bryant & May matchbox.
Bryant & May matchbox.

“I recall how excited we were when our mother was coming back from her annual pilgrimage to Lough Derg, which meant going through the little village of Pettigo in Northern Ireland, where she would always get us something unusual. Once. it was packets of Dolly Mixtures, which we had never seen before in Cork!”

Katie also remembers coming across chewing gum from slot machines in Belfast on a hitchhiking trip in later years.

“We emptied our pockets of small change to buy those cute little packets. I wouldn’t mind, we didn’t even chew gum, but it was so cool to get them from a machine! You had nothing like that back home then.”

Does anyone remember when Fry’s Cocoa had an offer whereby if you collected six or eight carton tops and sent them off, you got a little gift package of Crunchie, Fry’s Cream, and other delights?

Vintage Mackintosh’s Caramac chocolate wrappers, which could be collected by children.
Vintage Mackintosh’s Caramac chocolate wrappers, which could be collected by children.

In our family, where we didn’t drink cocoa that much (mother used it for baking principally), only one of my brothers managed to achieve the desired goal. How we envied his package arriving!

Another craze was collecting miniatures of alcohol when these became available.

“I had a pretty good collection when I started at UCC,” says Jane, “but then they got used in games of draughts, where you drank the bottle you had taken off the board. Ah, college days!”

“I collected loads of stuff, but in a disorganised, eclectic, haphazard kind of way,” confesses Ger Fitzgibbon. “I even collected snails once.

“There were a couple of favourite areas, though. Meccano was a big thing for me when I was about nine. I had been quite ill and spent months out of school, in bed, and the Meccano was a kind of life-saver.

“I had so much of the stuff in the end that my father supplied me with a special wooden case to put it in (in a vain effort to tidy things up, I imagine). I loved the lack of definition about Meccano. It was just all bits and you could make whatever you liked: a car or a machine or (in my case) a kind of windmill with a propellor blade that went around so fast it could slice a finger off.”

Ger’s next ‘Big Thing’ was Dinky or Corgi toys — specifically military ones, for war games.

“I had a large congregation of jeeps, lorries, guns, a Churchill tank (with a tank transporter), etc.”

The big frustration for a literal-minded child, though, he remembers, was that standard toy soldiers were made to an entirely different scale and so one German paratrooper could dwarf a howitzer.

“For me, this was simply not acceptable. I wanted my dramatic world to be complex but also coherent. And then some company (Airfix?) came along and produced little packets of plastic soldiers that were made in the same scale as the jeeps and guns. This was brilliant. What’s more, they also matched in scale the new line in self-assembly Airfix model planes — bombers and Spitfires and Messerschmidts.”

Other children loved the huge range of tiny lead farm animals from the Britain company.

“Mrs Barrett, who ran a riding school on the hills above Bishopstown, had a splendid farm permanently set out on a side table with a green baize cloth for fields, plus little lines of tape for tracks, and moss for hedges,” says Margaret, looking back reminiscently.

“She had every animal you could imagine, plus milkmaids, scythers and reapers, tiny chickens, big carthorses. I yearned for a dog with its own kennel, but could never afford it. These farm animals are still made, and it looks like the same moulds, but they’re plastic. Doubtless far more hygienic than lead, but they just don’t have the same heft and charm.”

Tom used to collect scrap metal, and often seized one of those little farm animals which had a broken leg from his little sister, melting it down to add to his lump of lead which would be taken to Charniker’s to exchange for a few pence.

He also got a little booklet on silver hallmarks and scoured the Corn Market stalls for scraps of silver.

“Once, I found a broken silver candlestick and got nine shillings for it at Reilly’s on Lavitt’s Quay. That kept me going to the pictures for months!”

He also collected waste paper and used his sister’s bike to wheel a huge sack of it down to the Cork Waste Paper company, where the going rate was tenpence for a sack.

Lots of people would keep stamps in special albums. Picture: stock
Lots of people would keep stamps in special albums. Picture: stock

Stamp collecting was of course a major passion, especially among schoolboys, who would stick their treasures carefully into an album with the special stamp hinges which could be bought in shops like Day’s in Patrick Street.

Most collectors yearned for classic stamps like the three-cornered Cape of Good Hope or the rare Pitcairn Islands, but there was a time when our own Irish stamps commanded a value too.

Tom remembers collecting all the used envelopes from various insurance companies around the city and cutting off the Irish stamps. “My mother would get me an envelope and a 3d stamp and I would send them off to an English company — probably Stanley Gibbons, since they were very well known at the time —and they would send me back a credit note for a few shillings, together with a sheet showing what stamps I could get with this credit. It was very exciting!”

This was in the very early ’50s, and it therefore looks likely that Stanley Gibbons and other English stamp traders were anxious to get their hands on supplies of the relatively new Poblacht na h-Éireann stamps, which would only have come into use in 1949.

Dinky cars were always a popular choice, not just among boys.

“Oh, I used to collect Dinkies and Matchbox,” enthuses Eileen Barry. “I used to keep them in a box under he bed. Cars of course, but even better, little lorries and trucks.

“My brother brought me a little fuel Bowser in that lovely RAF blue one Christmas, probably in ’61 or ’62. That was great.”

Eileen and her sister also used to collect paper dolls which appeared every now and again in Woman & Home. “Norah and Tilly they were called. You’d get a set of clothes that you cut out, with little tabs to hold them onto the paper/card model. We got great fun out of them.”

What did you collect in your younger days? Let us know! Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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