Saturday, August 14, 2010

Zabel of Contents

Over the years I have been researching the history of Topps and their card production, there have been tantalizing hints of printing done by a firm called Zabel Brothers Lithographers of 1620 N. 5th St., Philadelphia. Well, last weekend at the National I was able to get the back story and for all of their Brooklyn heritage, most of the cardboard memories created by Topps over the years came not from the Borough of Churches but rather from The City of Brotherly Love!

Founded around 1895, Zabel Brothers was a large and well known printer of sheet music in the 20th century. According to Irv Lerner ("The Ring Man"), who has been actively chasing, collecting and selling Topps cards since 1959, Zabel Brothers printed cards for Topps from the mid 1950's through at least the early 1980's. Their involvement came to light in an article about 1962 Topps Green Tints that appeared in SCD awhile back.

The '62 Green Tint story is well told in SCD and I will not get into it here right now, except to note I believe, but have not yet confirmed, the firm in upstate New York that actually printed the greenies was the Strecher-Traung Lithographic Company, who were eventually bought out a few short years later by Schmidt Lithographic, the same company that made the 1909-11 Obak cards.

While I do not have much interest in the 1980's portion of the story, I am curious as to when Zabel Brothers started printing cards for Topps. Mr. Lerner does not believe they produced the 1951 Baseball Candy issues and we already know that in 1954 the baseball cards were printed by the Lord Baltimore Printing Company of Maryland. I would hazard a guess that the 52's and 53's were printed by that same firm or another firm that was not Zabel Brothers.

In 1955 however, Topps went from 200 card press sheets to 220 card sheets, which were also used in 1956. It is possible due to the change in sheet size that 1955 is the first year Zabel Brothers started doing the work. It is also possible 1957 could mark the beginning due to the change in card size to what is now called "standard". One other possibility is 1959, when it seems to me production exploded and the card stock became noticeably slicker.

Not only did Zabel Brothers print the baseball issues, they printed everything else too, with the exception (possibly) of some test issues and odd-sized cards. Uncut sheets would be delivered to the Topps plant (Brooklyn prior to late 1965, Duryea thereafter) for cutting and inserting into the packaging. I have thought for a while that a lot of the uncut sheets in the hobby today were unused, unsuitable or otherwise damaged sheets from a prior series or set used as top and bottom cushions on the pallets during shipping . These sheets were used to protect the cards actually being cut for packaging from the banding that held the stacks together. These protective sheets were then discarded by Topps but picked up by various parties who literally saved them from the city dump.

I am not certain at all if Zabel Brothers also produced the wrappers and boxes, nor if they created the Topps advertising in this period but will try to find out. Basically, just about every card made for Topps over a thirty-plus year period was produced in Philadelphia. I have to suspect they also printed cards for Fleer and Philadelphia Gum. I am not so sure about Bowman as their connection with the George Moll Agency may have led them to a different printer.

I googled the street address of Zabel Brothers but it looks like the building is gone and the neighborhood is being reclaimed by the weeds, alas. So much hobby history was created here and now nothing remains:

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Doug said...


I just googled and found your website.

Bowman baseball cards were printed by Zabel Brothers Co., Inc., at 5th and Columbia Avenues in Philadelphia. Later the same company printed the Topps cards. My grandfather William E. Zabel, Sr. was the President of the company and my uncle William E. Zabel, Jr., was the Vice President. The company's plant was quite large and they had maybe three dozen presses of various sizes and vintages. I seem to remember being told that it was the largest printer in Philly.

I was 8 years old in the summer of 1951 and my grandfather made a present to me of a full set of uncut sheets of the 1951 Bowman baseball cards which I thumb-tacked to my bedroom walls in our summer house in Ocean City, NJ. He gave me full sets of sheets of all Bowman cards through 1959 or 1960. I kept them in my closet along with individual cards (Bowman and Topps) that I also collected and traded with friends.

The Bowman cards were printed on a German-made multi-color press (I think it was a Heidelberg)from zinc plates, one for each of 4 ink colors. Before printing actually began. the press ran a sheet through each color, one at a time. I once had a full set of sheets of the 1953 Bowman cards of 1 color each (yellow, blue, magenta and black I think).

Like so many of us, my mother tossed all of my collection into the trash one year when I was in college, probably 1965.

In 1962, I had a summer job at the printing plant. For the most part I was relegated to compacting printers waste in a hot and humid basement room. But my uncle gave me a really dirty job going through thousands of the accumulated zinc printing plates in a HUGE basement storage area, cataloging them, and then deciding which ones to keep (for possible later reprinting) or throw out (because who would ever want to reprint them?). The plates were from maybe 20 years of all of Zabel Brothers full color jobs). I found the zinc plates of the Bowman and Topps baseball cards (one plate for each color). We decided that there would never be a reason to reprint the same sheets as the players change every year. So we threw them out. (Actually I think they were sent to a scrap metal dealer so it is possible they survived someplace, though I doubt it.) We didn't have any inkling that the value of the cards would increase over time, we just assumed old cards were worthless and kids would only want the current year's players. Not much foresight......

I can't tell you the year that Zabel Brothers took over printing of Topps cards but it would have been in the mid-to-late 50s.

Doug Hall
Chichester, NH 03258

toppcat said...

Hello Doug:

What a fabulous story-best Comments posted here ever, I think! I do know Zabel Brothers was a huge printer of sheet music for a long period of time; possibly the biggest in the U.S. I am curious if you know what happened to the firm at the end as there is not a whole lot to be found on it from what I have seen. You can contact me at the e-mail link shown at the top of the page if you have the time (and patience).


Kathy said...

So my Dad ran the presses at Zabel Bros. and did the Beatle cards bought home full sheets to me! Also did the Elvis ones. Boy was I popular for those. They also did money fr the mint several times that was very secretive at the time. I was just looking cause a friend of mine told me she still has a set of the Beatle cards. I told her they are probably worth something by now. Hmmm think I was right! I had wallpapered a closet in the eves of our house with sheets of baseball cards. Boy do I wish I had taken all that with me when I got married. Unfortunately that home was sold and demolished.

Bill K said...

Hello from Bill,
It seems that my dad worked at Zabels during the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's. It was one heck of a job. Every time I smell that printing ink I thi nk of my dad. Besides my dad, I remember a group of guys who also worked there. They were always so nice to me when I came to visit. I do know that Zabels also printed baseball cards ( gray backs), wrapping paper, calenders, and the advertisements that companies wrap around cans, among other things. I go to admit the cards were incredible. Oh where or where have my baseball cards one?

paul p. p. said...

Have I got a story for you.. I worked for the phone co. for 33 years, retiring in 2001. In 1989 my boss was a card collector, one day he had a becket, and I aSKED TO LOOK AT IT, i TOLD HIM i HAD SEVERAL OF MY '63 AND '64 TOPPS, and porceeded to tell him a story from 1969 when I was a "coin collercet" that's taking coins out of pay phones for the phone co. not your collicting and saving kind. and told him i collecter coins where they made the cards, he lit up and several minutes i told hin i knew they were made at 5th and columbia aves. just 10 blocks from our garage. A few days later we took a ride up there at lunch time to check it out.It was closed, but we drew the attention of the caretaker, a slovic man in his late 50's or early 60's who had the key... We told him we had to check out some phone cables in the building, he let us in unattented.. We went thru the whole building. We found all kinds of materials, the place closed or mover in 1978-79. there were hockey cards, cabbage patch kid uncut sheets, 1964 thru 1975 baseball proof sheets, some basketball stuff, no fleer, just topps.... we went back on several days, even taking a vacation day or two, and got most of this stuff, giving the caretaker a few bucks, and some disguared alummin for scrapp metal for recycling.. we filled-up a van twice. went to atlantic city for a show and sold stuff to mr. mint (al rosen) i still have several uncut proof sheets framed and hanging n my walls. went back several years later, the place burned to the ground.. paul p.

Ken said...


This is great, my Dad worked at Zabel Bros. as a Lithographer 50's, 60's and 70's.
Similiarly during the 60's he would come home with uncut sheets of baseball, beatles, old TV shows (Man from Uncle etc.), as weel as Audobon Society hard back prints aand Moon Landing pictures.
My Mom did not throw out the cards however I seperated them from the uncut sheets with her jagged edge sewing scissors. Thanks for the memories


Unknown said...

Those of you who had relatives that worked at zabels during the late 60s and 70s, it would be nice to know who they were. I worked there from 69 to 75 and lost touch with everyone after it closed. Same story though, lots of sheets of cards now lost because my step father threw them out just before I was going to sell them to pay for law school.

Unknown said...

These posts are great to read. Surprised to have just found them. Bill Zabel was my grandfather. For years i have been trying to find old collectibles from the Zabel Brothers plant. If any of you have interesting items such as uncut sheets, plates, etc., I'd so appreciate the chance to discuss and potentially purchase.

Unknown said...

Incredible posts! I am researching all of this material with a focus on the 1956 Topps baseball 2nd series. Looking for stories just like these. So far all signs point to the Lord Baltimore printing press. Thanks

Scott Berger said...

My father was a salesman at Zabel Brothers through the 80s. When the recent shooting occurred in Philly I went looking to see how close this was to the neighborhood the plant was in, and found a bunch of these stories.

My dad also brought me home the full sheets of the Topps cards, along with an assortment of Wacky Sticker sheets. Such fun cutting them up!

Unknown said...

I worked at Zabel Brothers during the company's final few years. Zabel became the primary printer for Topps cards and folding cartons when Zabel bought Topps's printing plant in Connecticut and moved the presses to Philadelphia in the late 1950's. Zabel was home to many great craftsmen and was an industry training ground for many years. Operations ceased at Zabel in 1981 following an ugly strike by the GAIU. An attempt to sell the company privately and set up an employee stock ownership plan was blocked. Most of the assets were sold to American Packaging, who continued to print Topps cards until the printing was moved to Panel Prints. After Zabel's operations ceased at 5th & Columbia, the city real estate taxes exceeded any recognized source of income. The building was sold to a paper merchant, that closed soon after moving in. I remember Lou Ricca and Al Berger, whose jobs, along with many others, should not have been lost.

toppcat said...

Thanks for your very informative comment. I am putting together Scott Berger being Al Berger's son but is there any relation to Sy Berger at Topps? My records, such as they are, show Lord Baltimore Press being the main Topps printer until they were bought out by International Paper and the commercial presses were shut down around 1958-59. Did Lord Baltimore have a Connecticut plant as well as one in Baltimore? Topps had a printing plant in Connecticut during the 60's owned by a Shorin relative (P.Peter Shorin) called Chromographic Press that was shut down by the early 70's as well (and which I think may have done more specialized work than the main printing of cards at Zabel) but I think that only started up in the early 60's.

Unknown said...

I don’t think Al Berger was related to Sy. Lord Baltimore Press was only in Baltimore, and they were definitely a major supplier until the IP era. I think the two 58” 2-color Harris presses at Zabel came from the Topps plant in CT. For a time, Topps May have printed the backs and LBP the fronts. Zabel bought their 60” 5-color Miehle to print Topps fronts.

toppcat said...

Unknown, are you able to e-mail me at I have some questions if you have a little time. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi, I worked at Zabel Brother from 1968 when I graduated high school till 81. My uncle worked there until they closed. He worked there over 35 years. I had every uncut series from 68 to 81, stored in my bedroom closet. We moved in 81 and I can still visualize them going into the back of the trash truck. I also had cards from 1956 to 68 my uncle used to give me. I could of made a nice dollar had I kept them but who knew they would be worth anything back then. I had a lot of good friends there.