The Story Of The 1956 Elvis Bubblegum Card Set
Many thanks to Seth Kaminsky (USA) and Harry Carrigan (UK) for sharing their knowledge and interest on this subject!
Text by Seth Kaminsky
The history of the 1956 Elvis set might be traced all the way back to 1892 when Morris and Rebecca Chigorinsky emigrated from Russia to the United States. Morris founded the American Leaf Tobacco Company, the predecessor company to the Topps Chewing Gum Company. Morris and Rebecca subsequently changed their last name to Shorin and had five sons, one of whom died in 1918. The surviving four boys started The Topps Gum Company in 1938 and during and just after World War II were primarily involved in producing chewing gum products. 1947 was a turning point for Topps as they (a) launched a new subsidiary, Bubbles, Inc., (b) scored a huge public relations coup when they dumped 60 million wrappers as confetti at the Labor Day parade in New York City to promote their latest product, Bazooka Gum and lastly (c) when Morris’ grandson Phillip hired Sy Berger, his college fraternity brother to work at Topps. Sy is considered to be the father of modern baseball cards. Topps was primarily producing baseball cards in packs to accompany their gum and in the late 40′s also started issuing non-sport material. These included cartoon strips, tattoo like products on thin paper and other paper promotionals.
Their earliest true non sport cards began to be issued around 1949 with their Flags of all Nations series followed in the early ‘50s by other well known Topps sets such as Look ‘N See, Freedom’s War, Wings, Scoops, Bring ‘em Back Alive and Rails and Sails.
In 1956, Topps purchased Bowman, their biggest competitor, and thus became the preeminent gum/card company in the States. And in the late fall of 1956, following an agreement with the new Elvis Presley Enterprises entity (EPE), Topps produced their famous Elvis set.
The set came out as being manufactured by Bubbles, Inc. an entity Topps created (apparently out of thin air!) to distinguish the set from other Topps non sport products.
Their Elvis set was not the first Topps set to focus on a single person. That would have been the Hopalong Cassidy set of 1950 but it was one of the earliest sets to capitalize on the booming rock and roll craze and was the first set to feature a single music artist.
This set is also one of the first non sport sets to utilize the 2 ½” x 3 ½” “standard” baseball card size format which became the norm, at least in the States.
The first 42 cards in the 66 card full color Elvis set feature photographs of Elvis taken on movie lots, in recording studios and at concerts. Card captions for these cards are located in a red guitar on the front of the card.
The top banner on the rear of the card posts the card number and an Ask Elvis question which is “answered” by Elvis in the center of the card. The bottom of the rear side features a facsimile Elvis signature and the EPE and Bubbles, Inc. copyright information. On some cards the notation “PRTD. In U.S.A” appears vertically in the lower right hand corner of the back.
The exception to this is the Record Collector’s Checkl List card #2 which sets out the A and B sides of 16 Elvis hit 45′s of the day as well as “RCA Victor Records” and the RCA logo at the bottom. The collector was to check off the records he/she owned. Of course, modern collectors want a clean, unchecked card #2.
All cards in the set are notorious for being off center.
Cards 47 thru 66 reflect scenes from Elvis’ latest film, Love Me Tender, which starred Elvis and Debra Paget. Card captions are located in a red film clapboard on the front of the card. The rear of the card has the card title repeated on the top banner and the complete Love Me Tender story set out on the card backs. The bottom of the cards include the tag that Love Me Tender is a Twentieth Century-Fox picture along with the EPE and Bubbles, Inc. copyright information. While the word “Topps” does not appear anywhere on the card, it is believed that “Topps” replaced “Bubbles” on some of the Canadian issued cards, at least according to Chris Benjamin’s Price Guide to the 1930-1960 Non Sport cards. This has not been confirmed and this writer had never seen such a card. Similarly, no blank back “proof cards” of the U.S. issued set have been seen.
To the left we see a Hobby Card Album, as manufactured by Topps.
Always looking to promote their product, the Elvis set is believed to have been issued in three ways. In 1¢ and 5¢ gum packs, in Hobby Card display boxes and in gumball machines.
Topps also created a three panel “Salesman’s Sample” piece for their salespeople to distribute to promote the sale of the set. Many of these samples have been cut into three cards and an uncut version of this promo piece is quite rare.
The wrapper for the 1¢ pack is of a “continuous run ” 6” x 4 ½” design. The wrapper for the 5¢ pack is a non-continuous run, stand alone piece featuring an image of Elvis and is 6” x 5 1/2”. Both wrappers are red, yellow and black. Packs exist for both the 1¢ and 5¢ issues.
Canadian issues of the 5¢ box generally have a “36 Count” imprint at the upper right hand corner of the box lid, noting 36 packs to the box.
The display boxes for the US 5¢ packs contained 24 packs and the “24 Count” imprint exists on many of the boxes. Full display boxes have been discovered.
The sides of the packing carton for 1¢ display boxes notes that there are 24 display boxes to the carton.
Packing cartons for the 5¢ display boxes might also have been made for shipment of this product but this is unconfirmed.
Topps also created an entity called the Trading Card Guild (TCG) as a way to further promote their cards. Loose Elvis cards were also issued under the TCG moniker using Hobby Card boxes. There were many duplicate cards in these boxes and it is said that it would have been extremely difficult to assemble a full set out of product from Hobby Card boxes … no doubt another way for Topps to boost sales to the kids.
Cards from the set were also believed to have been issued in gumball machines as Elvis cards from the set are visible in images of at least one machine of 1956 vintage. Other machines also dispensed 3 1/2” x 2 1/2” cards and might very well have dispensed Elvis cards … probably 1¢ for a gumball and a card.
A&BC’s cards were almost exclusively released in gumball machines as the wrapper/pack method of distribution was far more expensive. As such, no wrappers, packs or display boxes have been seen for this UK issued set nor are they likely to be. This writer has never seen an image of a gumball machine which has been verified to have been used to dispense cards from the Elvis set although it’s no doubt out there!
A&BC created a blank grey back proof run of the Elvis cards which set exists but is not believed to have been sold commercially. The UK cards are slightly larger than their US counterpart at 3 ¾” x 2 5/8” and are identical in all other aspects to the US set except for the change in copyright from Bubbles, Inc. to the A&BC logo at the bottom of the flip side along with the Printed In England tag line. The cards are believed to have been packaged in 1000 card boxes with Elvis cards co-mingled with other cards for insertion by dealers into the gumball machines. While these boxes have been seen, there is no verification that Elvis cards were inside although given the dates of box use, this is believed to be the case. Soon after the release of this set, A&BC adopted the wrapper/pack card distribution methodology.
Over the years, there have been a number of efforts to capitalize on this set. In the late 1970′s, for example, a black and white “bootleg” set was created and sold (by some schemer whos name is fortunately, lost to history).
No wrapper or pack is known to have been created for this set which was simply sold as a stack of 66 cards. All copyright information has been removed from the back of these cards and the reproduced images are quite crude.
EPE itself tried to capitalize on the set by creating a six magnet knock off product of their own ’56 Elvis set. The display card features six mini refrigerator magnets (2 ¾” x 2”) with the exact images of six cards from the ’56 Elvis set. The magnet display board carries a ©1988 EPE copyright, and was sold at the Elvis exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. The tag line on the display reads: ”These Elvis Presley Collector cards were originally manufactured in 1956 by the Bubbles Company. Ask Elvis trivia appeared on the flip side. A package of six, along with a stick of gum sold for about a quarter”. Perhaps we can conclude from this that the 5¢ pack contained 6 cards but I chose not to open the sealed pack I have to find out!
All in all, a great old tribute set for the Elvis fan or the non-sport card collector.