In Australia, the professional “footy” league is known as the AFL (Australian Football League). And as is the case with any sport worth its salt. Millions of cards are manufactured depicting the players of the game, team logos, trophies, stadiums… you name it.
These collectibles are by no means as popular as the football cards of our own great nation. But they do sell like hotcakes. And you might be surprised just how long they’ve been around.
Australian Rules Footy Cards
It might surprise you to hear that Australian footy cards actually out-dated the AFL, as technically speaking, the AFL is a relatively new construction. It’s the latest of many reworkings of the professional Australian league.
The AFL wasn’t established as the official league name until 1990, so to answer our key question here… if we’re being pedantic about it, the very first AFL footy cards started in 1990.
But seeing as the AFL is more of a rebranding than a complete overhaul of earlier tournaments, we can, by and large, see them all as one league with a storied history.
This means, to truly answer our inquiry, we have to delve further into the past!
Just How Old Is The AFL?
Want to know something shocking? The AFL, in its earliest manifestations, is almost as old as the modern game of soccer — nuts, right?
Originally called the Victorian Football League, it was first established in 1896. A mere 8 years after the creation of the EFL (English Football League).
So, can we say that the oldest AFL footy cards surfaced in 1896? Or perhaps a little later once the sport’s popularity grew?
Nope! Footy cards actually pre-date the AFL as an official entity, and get this… some of the very first were manufactured by the American Tobacco Company in 1894.
Why Do Footy Cards Precede The VFL (Former AFL)?
At first, it does seem rather strange that sports cards would out-date their corresponding sport. But it actually makes a lot of sense once the details are established.
The first thing to bear in mind is that the sport always comes before the league. Without the sport as a concept, there’d be nothing to build a league around. So even though the VFL was founded in 1896, Aussie rules football had been around for a while already.
In fact, this sport had become so popular that many of its star players had become celebrities, both within the nation, and to a certain extent, beyond it, which explains why the very first footy cards are actually of American descent.
The set that the American Tobacco Company released wasn’t focused solely on Australian football, however. Rather, it was centered around Australian celebrities, and as we’ve established, some of the biggest of the era were football players.
As it wasn’t a football-centric set, there weren’t many players included, but one big name card from that collection that goes for a pretty penny these days is Essendon player, Will Crebbin, selling at auction in 2018 for over $10,000.
When Were The First Australian Rules Footy Cards Released?
We’ve spoken a little bit about the American Tobacco Company’s contribution to this area of sports history, but believe it or not, they weren’t the first off the mark with Australian footy cards.
Before this 1894 set saw the light of day, there had already been a football-centric card set released by American company, Goodwin & Co’s Old Judge Cigarettes. These cards burst onto the scene just before the turn of the decade, meaning they out-date the VFL by at least six or so years.
This set focused on players from South Australia and Victoria, and they’re really a sight to behold. Sadly though, they’re incredibly rare, and the ones that are still around are almost always in subpar condition, not just in terms of wear and tear, but because the photos are so old that the images are fading away.
If you have one of these cards hiding away somewhere in a dusty corner of your attic, thank your lucky stars, as it’s worth a lot of money, especially if it’s in comparatively good condition.
Australian Rules Footy Cards: 1900 And Beyond
Before we go our separate ways, let’s take a brief look at a timeline of Australian rules footy cards from 1900 onwards.
In 1905, W.D. & H.O. Wills released another early set of footy cards, and shortly after in 1908, Sniders & Abrahams released their own take on the classic footy card, each one featuring a scene from a game, rather than an individual player.
Sniders & Abrahams then followed up with a traditional player portrait series. And between 1908 and 1913, W.D. & H.O. Wills returned with an illustrated set of footy cards depicting club colors and flags. This release was a collaboration with Capstan, a British cigarette company.
There was only really one new collection of repute in this decade, and it came from McIntyre Bros in 1922. Some of them featured a tartan frame, giving them a distinct visual pop that made them favorites of many collectors.
This was a busy period for footy card production, kicked off in 1930 by the Australian division of Godfrey Phillips Co., a British company. Two local confectionery companies, Hadleys and Clark-Ellis, followed suit with a couple more sets.
Still more sets were produced by Plaistowe & Co, Pals Periodical, Carreras (two sets, the first of which was a collection of caricature by artist Bob Miram), Giant Licorice Cigarettes, MacRobertson’s, and our old friends W.D. & H.O. Wills.
The most popular set of this time was the 63 Scanlens collection. Due to a printing defect, the Graham “Polly” Farmer Scanlens card is particularly rare, selling recently for over $7,000.
AMSCOL produced another set featuring South Australian players, but as they were poorly promoted and packaged, people didn’t realize they were included under the company’s large ice cream tin lids, and thus, many were discarded.
In 1991, the last card set to arrive as part of a chewing gum product was released by Stimorol, but Select managed to release multiple sets to make up for this absence and are still considered one of the leading AFL card manufacturers.
The first ever Australian rules footy cards were released in the late 1880s, but whether they can be called ALF cards is up for debate, as not only would the AFL not be christened for over a century, the original VFL league had not been created either.
To be technically correct, the first AFL footy cards were released in 1990, when the AFL moniker was created.