Having a Wild Time w/ Wild West!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2002 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
Kids love Cowboys. They love Indians, too. So it's little wonder Bowman tapped into this universal fascination of the Old West when they produced one of their most popular sets in 1949. It was called Wild West. It ignited a card buying craze that was similar to the Gold Rush frenzy from 100 years before. The treasure this time wasn't glistening rocks, however, but colorful cards that put a twinkle in many a youngster's eye.
Not since Horrors of War had so many packs leapt off the shelves and into the pockets of happy customers. Both sets contained plenty of guns and action, not to mention blood. (Did I mention blood?) Bowman discovered early on that there was nothing like lots of red ink to put a card company back in the black!
These colorful cards measure 2 1/16 x 2 1/2 inches. Of the 180 cards in the set, about half contain images of implied or graphic violence. Almost every gun had a fire blast or, at very least, a trail of smoke leaving its barrel. This isn't the lazy West with miles of boring desert. No sir. This is the EXCITING West with danger lurking behind every rock and cactus!
Check out some of these images... Death at the Waterhole (A10): A cowboy drinks from a pond while an Indian runs up behind his head with a sharp tomahawk. You can bet he won't have to part his hair again! Gun Runners (A18): A bloody corpse lies on a box of guns that a smuggler intended to sell to the Indians, but instead gave away-- along with his life. Burnt-Arrow Punishment (D6): Indians place red-hot arrows on the bare chest of a squirming white captive. Now that's gotta hurt! And then there is Rifles at 30 Yards (G14): Two men pace off 30 steps and then spin around to squeeze off several rounds until one of them kisses the dirt. With hand-held revolvers, there was always a good chance both combatants would empty their pistols without either one being hit. But with rifles...
How big of a success was this series? According to the Chris Benjamin guide, Bowman's New York representative alone sold more than 250,000 boxes in three months. That's nothing to blow bubbles at. The sheer number of cards that are still available from this popular series also suggests large quantities were sold. While top condition cards may be relatively rare, EX and VG singles always seem to be up for auction.
One of the things that discourages many people from collecting this set is the numbering sequence. The set is broken up into subsets of A through H. Each subset is 20 cards in length, except for the "A" series, which has 40 cards. The last four cards of each series usually cost twice or three times the regular amount, because they were issued in lower quantity. (For the "A" series, it's the last 8 cards.) The subset themes are (A) Winning The West, (B) Indian Customs, (C) Famous Characters, (D) Indian Warfare, (E) Cowboy Life, (F) Law and Order, (G) River Days, and (H) Western Stars. By "stars", they didn't mean the ones in the sky either, but popular movie actors who were famous for the western parts they played. You won't find John Wayne or Gary Cooper here. Instead, there are detailed images of character actors like Al "Fuzzy" St. John, Monte Hale, and Ray Bennett.
This wasn't Bowman's first Wild West series, nor its last. The first series was issued in 1933 by Gum, Inc. (the pre-war name for Bowman). It used completely different art. There were two sets of 24 released, with a special bonus card (#25) which offered a prize. The premium card is considered quite rare. The artist wasn't as good as the one who painted the 1949 series. His characters featured the fat, rosy cheeks so often seen on Santa Claus or the Sunbeam Bread girl. (Heck, with cheeks like that, it's surprising the Indians settled for scalps.)
The first 24 in the 1933 series also had lines on the back where collectors were supposed to cut up their cards to form puzzles. Imagine the psychological effects this produced on a generation of collectors who can't blame their mothers for destroying their cards.
"Gee dad, this card is neat! I bet a set is worth a lot. What happened to the rest of your collection?"
"Well, I-- uh..."
The text of the cards are also interesting. Bowman's earlier set was rather insensitive toward Indians, saying things like, "This picture shows mounted soldiers in a suprise attack on some Indians who no doubt deserved to be punished." However, the 1949 set goes in the other direction, sometimes being too generous. Take for example, Ransom (D7): It states, "Some of the captives taken by the Indians from lonely frontier homes and settlements made their escape, and some were rescued by scouts and soldiers. There were also many who were freed through the payment of ransom. It was a joyous occasion when men and women were restored to their families, and children to their parents." What is not mentioned is that such women were often shunned by their husbands, because the Indians routinely raped them. But of course, this sort of trivia would get a bubble gum series yanked from the shelves faster than you could say "How."
The 1949 set is much more popular with collectors. So popular, in fact, that they reissued most of the artwork in 1953 under a new title, Frontier Days. That set was a larger format (2 1/2" x 3 3/4") but filled the larger margins on the side with western graphics. There were 128 cards in this series, all of them originally from the 1949 set. The later series is usually about a third of the cost of the 1949 series as well.
Bowman seemed to know these sets would be worth something in the future. They stated in their 1950 newsletter, "Complete sets, in perfect condition, will become more and more valuable as the years goes by. Sets of 240 Horrors of War cards issued by Bowman 10 years ago are bringing a fancy price." Fancy is an understatement. If Bowman realized what those 1 cent cards currently fetch today, they probably would have spent less money producing cards and more on stockpiling them.
Yet many of the Wild West cards are not too expensive on an individual basis. Complete sets usually "book" for $1500 or so, but I was able to piece together mine for about half of that cost. Of course, I don't seek top grade. I settle for decent VG or EX cards. The quality has been pretty good so far. I usually pay between $3 and $5 a piece for individual cards, and often less (when purchased as lots.) There are a few "key" cards, but I rarely pay anything near the premiums stated in the price guides. ($12 is the most I spent for a Daniel Boone card, and that one was Near Mint.) The higher number cards are more scarce, but they turn up over time. I started this series about a year ago and I'm only four cards short from completion (C13, C18, C19 & C20). So it's certainly an achievable goal.
All in all, this is a fun and nostalgic set to collect. What a piety they don't make 'em like they used to. But then again, if they did, these wouldn't seem as unique as they do now. It's all part of the charm of this wonderful set.
Recent Wild West Auction Update! Four of the original pencil sketches recently sold on eBay. (F-1, F-6, F-8, and F-14.) They sold between $130 and $186 each. The item descriptions give some interesting history behind the set. Check it out:
Following the end of World War II, Gum Inc. was absorbed into the Bowman card company, with former Gum Inc. art director Charles Steinbacher still at the helm. Steinbacher had held his position with the firms for 30 years, before retiring, and he was there for the production of all of the art for Gum, Inc.'s and Bowman's most memorable sets, including this classic Wild West issue. Artist Tom King was the conceptual genius that Charles Steinbacher relied upon as he was given a storyline and then asked to produce the artwork for it. Although Steinbacher did not produce the conceptual artwork himself, he was responsible for the finished product and proud enough of some of these works to hold onto them for his entire life locked safe. The original artwork started surfacing in the collector's market shortly after their discovery back in early 1993. Presented is this conceptual art work for the 1950 Bowman Wild West issue #F-14 and titled "Rangers Ride" from the Law and Order series. Drawn in pencil by artist Tom King, the original artwork measuring 3-1/4 by 3-1/2 in. and is adhered to a 6-1/2 by 8 inch paper, with the original story line shown under it.
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