Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mama Don't Take My Flexichrome Away

With apologies to Paul Simon, I thought today would be a good day to take a look at a coloring process that was a big part of Topps artistic arsenal for many years.  Flexichrome is a word often used to describe original Topps images and unless you are a photographer who put in time in the dark room,you would generally think of it as a retouched black and white photograph.  Well, thanks to a restless mind and a spare couple of bucks, I was able to mine the wilds of Ebay and come up with the source document for all things Flexichrome:

While the first color photograph was taken in 1855 (or possibly a bit earlier) and a better process had been developed by 1877,it was pretty much all do-it yourself until 1898, following which there were several commercial refinements introduced prior to World War 1. Color photography and the related developing and printing processes were very much a European enterprise until Kodak introduced a color film called Kodachrome in 1935, initially for use in filming 16mm movies but later expanded to still prints and slides by 1941, the same year they offered widespread processing and printing of color prints.  A mere year later, a more "modern" process called Kodacolor was introduced, which made it possible for one piece color negatives to be produced, thereby aiding in inexpensive printing and reproduction of color prints.  World War 2 and shortages in the aftermath would delay widespread adoption of color photography by amateurs until around the end of the Korean War. Slowly but surely the print and lithographic world turned from black and white to color in the mid 50's.

What was good enough for Uncle Fred though, was not necessarily something that worked in commercial applications.  Once color trading cards again became widespread after World War 2, most early efforts were made with illustrations.  As photography began to replace such illustration, in no small part thanks to the 1952 Topps Baseball set, a need arose to enable retouching and coloring of photos for "accurate" reproduction on the cards.

The process that prevailed, as there were ultimately a handful, was called Crawford Flexichrome and invented by Jack Crawford in New York in the late 1930's. Long story short, three enlargements of the original negative were made, copied onto stock provided either by a company called Defender (which also marketed the Crawford product) or Kodak. The enlargements were then manipulated using color dies and then recombined to form the final image. There's more on the process below.

The war then intervened and in 1949 Kodak bought the process, still dubbed Flexichrome, and it quickly was adopted for use by many companies.  As this article in the October 1949 Popular Mechanics shows, it was not a simple process and ironically it was often used on black and white originals in order to produce vivid color products.

To help out their customers, Kodak offered a series of guides to be used by photographers and printers.  A guide for using Flexichrome was introduced in 1950 (that is the cover of it shown above) and it was over 40 pages in length! Let's look at a few excerpts, shall we?

OK, so far so good.  Now, for a brief overview:

OK, definitely not in Kansas anymore.  This is clearly a process designed for use by professionals and very serious amateurs.  For instance, here is a basic list of what you will need to get going:

I have to check but I think I just ran out of Vitrolite Glass.....  Here is a handy visual guide that shows the entire process in 18 easy to remember steps.  Number 6 is quite unsettling:

A talented artist could do any number of things with the process:

Now let's review:

That's an estimated 15 minutes per picture, plus the drying time.  Now imaging doing that for 80, 200 or 407 pictures!  No wonder Topps needed a stable of artists to make their cards look good. The heyday of Topps Flexichromes runs from 1952 through 1962 or so, when better processes started crowding it out, although  it was used into the 1970's and the dyes are still available today, even though film is now just a quaint notion much like corsets or a decent Hollywood movie.

Let's take a final look.  Here is a version of a 1953 Who-z-at Star card I have effortlessly made into a grayscale picture with my graphics editor:

I know I am simplifying things with ol' Forrest  but Who-z-at Star to me is one of the classic flexi-sets.  Here is the finished product:

Flexichrome proper was discontinued in 1961; it can be seen in use on Topps images through 1962 but if you look at Topps sets starting with 1963 Baseball, you can really see how the sharpness of the color images improved. 

Once again, I am just amazed Topps was able to carve any profit at all out for their cards and gum with all the massive production and support costs involved.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Good Night Irene

Just a quickie kids-Hurricane Irene has cut power to the main Topps Archives Research Center with nary an electron in sight so it is iPhone only right now. Hopefully we will be back soon but until then why not check out my article on early Topps card sizing in the latest issue (#261) of The Wrapper.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Plane Crazy

The many mysteries of Topps Production and Marketing seem never-ending.  Recently, Friend o'the Archive Howard Schenker sent along a scan of some packaging for a toy issue called Fighter Planes.  The box scan he sent is well-executed but the set itself is not well known so sales must not have, ahem, taken off:

That young lad looks like he could step into an episode of Leave It To Beaver. The pack is essentially a reproduction of the box artwork:

There is a handy checklist on the back and we can see the pack is an envelope and not a true wrapper:

As always, the indicia is helpful:

While the artwork just screams 1950's, the type face and Made In Japan notation put this into the 1960's to my mind.  Just what year is unclear, although the Non-Sport Archive wrapper reference indicates 1957 and while some of the dates in that book (which is quite useful and well illustrated folks) are off by a few years, the attribution must have come from somewhere.

Woody Gelman kept a wrapper example in his files:

And in this scan from the aforementioned Non Sport Archive, we see a ten cent version was issued at some point:

There is no extant scan but Chris Benjamin, in his The Sport Americana Price Guide to the Non-Sports Cards, No. 4 writes that the ten cent pack has a Duryea credit, which puts it at 1969 or later.  Benjamin also shows only twelve planes for the later issue's checklist, just half of the five cent version.  I want to dig some more and see what turns up on these planes.  If you have an idea, drop me a line.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

They Waited 'Til Next Year

NOTE: I now believe the Red Back printing information below to be incorrect; it appears only two press runs were made.  See here for more information. 2/1/12

On occasion, during my random scourings of the Web, I run across an item that gives me pause.  A couple of weeks ago, while trolling around I came across an empty box of Doubles, the designation given by Topps to the last method of distribution of the 1951 Red and Blue Backs.  I have covered the various gyrations and iterations of this release before, narrowing down a Theory of Everything that ties the set into the Baseball Candy issues that Topps launched in their initial salvo against Bowman's perennial sports issues but a new angle has expanded matters a bit.

Doubles are well known and packs are prevalent to this day thanks to a large warehouse find in the early 1980's:

This pack has two Blue Backs within but more often than not they had Two Red Backs in them. After the caramel scare of mid 1951 where the product, then known as Baseball Candy, was pulled from distribution due to an alleged chemical interaction between candy and card that was (maybe) sickening people.  While the Baseball Candy issues more likely were pulled due to an injunction obtained by Bowman and not over the poisoning of the first wave of baby boomers, the results were the same and the candy had to go.  That left a pile of cards sitting in Brooklyn, something the Shorin's abhorred.

Ever willing to repurpose a trading card issue, Topps renamed the set Doubles and proceeded to repackage their intricately planned set in to singles, separated from their original, two cards panel configuration, presuambly by a small army of caramel resistant workers gahered together in the waning months of 1951.

A box bottom has recently been photographed and while it looks rather plain, it contains a key detail:

Can't see it?  Here is a closeup of the indicia:

Yes, it says 1952!  This now requires me to completely revise the perceived order of issue for these little guys, something I will get into next time out.  I still am unsure if these would have been sold alongside the 1952 Topps Baseball Cards or when they hit the street in '52 but sixty years later, Baseball Candy is slowly giving up its secrets.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Back & Forth

I've had a little bit of time to do some more digging on the 1968 Topps 3-D prototype card of Brooks Robinson, discussed most recently here.  Of note, Friend O'the Archive Ted Boyd has advised that the type of Orioles patch on Brooksie's sleeve dates the photo to 1962 or earlier. This is not an unheard of date spread for Topps.  My guess is that the prototype was originally developed in the winter of 1966-67, a period where Topps was focusing intently on non-traditional products, so that's a 4 or 5 year gap between photo and production.

A digital photo of the back, courtesy of Josh Alpert, showing the Huggins & Scott prototype proves it is very sheer:

It almost seems like the back was skinned off but it's probably just a different material than the backing of an issued 3-D card.  More than one material may have been tested or pitched to Topps. Here is the front again, in another photo provided by Josh:

The above example is the uncracked one, of course. The material of the card with the crack is unknown at present, although I am working on finding out its composition.  However, there may b ea third example out there and it's one that helps tie the cards in to Xograph, producers of the 3-D cards that actually amde it into packs. Bob Lemke alerted me to the fact a picture of a version with a stamped reverse is shown in the 2011 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards.  Sure enough, it is:

It's a little faint but you can see the word XOGRAPH stamped atop some wording similar to that found on the back of some later production proofs.  It's also hard to see but I don't think that is the cracked version of the card, which I recall had a Beckett connection and would not necessarily have been in the competing Standard Catalog. Rob Lifson of Robert Edward Auctions also passed along his opinion as to provenance:

I have never had this card myself but have seen images and heard of it. I think the description as a prototype for 1968 Topps 3D sounds reasonable, and that description carries a very broad brush. Xograph in Texas produced the 1968 Topps 3Ds for Topps and it is likely they made prototypes prior to their small production run. It is speculative, but it certainly seems reasonable that this is what this card is. The fact that the photo is earlier would not preclude them from using it in 1967 or 1968, so that all alone wouldn’t bother me. I’d like to know the provenance, as I’m sure that would answer all the questions, but my best guess is that this really was produced by Xograph (I don’t know if they were the only ones producing this “3D’ product at the time, or just the only one producing cards – if they were the only ones offering this product due to technology patents etc that could probably be looked up and if that is the case would also be extremely supportive). Whatever it is, it does not appear to be intended to be a finished product at all (and that is why there is no Xograph company attribution; even the 1968 Topps 3D cards say Xograph, not Topps, except when hand ink stamped on reverse identifying them as samples). The borders on Robinson look fairly narrow and of course the corners are square. I wonder if this is even machine cut (I can’t tell from the image but if it is not machine cut that would also be consistent with it being a prototype.

The projection on the Standard Catalog card matches the cracked one, i.e. "Nessie" does not have a tail (see my prior posts for this part of discussion).  I plan to revisit the projection comparisons at some point but will wait a little bit until I can obtain higher resolution scans, hopefully once Huggins & Scott gets their auction up.

All of this means that there are potentially three versions of the card:

1) Cracked
2) Standard Catalog
3) Huggins & Scott

where 3) is a distinct variation from 1), with 2)'s category presently unattributable.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Spirit of '66

Not too long ago I took a look at the early months of 1969, when Topps transitioned their manufacturing indicia from showing Brooklyn to Duryea.  The move to Duryea was completed in early 1966 and Topps designed a new logo in celebration.  Production code dating would soon follow, likely as a way to help coordinate efforts between the creative staff in Brooklyn and the packaging plant in Duryea, with a side trip to Philadelphia for printing.

The new logo, all in lowercase and with a distinctive curved "t", is well known and one I think is a minimalist classic:

Trademark records indicate Topps used this logo for the first time in late 1965, although I have yet to find any 1965 wrappers or merchandising showing it and it was probably phased in slowly, first appearing on letterhead and marketing information for the 1966 sets.  Topps then began using the logo on their packaging in early 1966.  You can see the '65 baseball wrapper uses a slightly stylized verison of the old Topps lettering that dated back to 1938 and the founding of the company:

The logo then transitioned to a very generic looking one by the time the football cards hit the shelves in late summer:

Some wrappers, usually featuring images licensed from TV shows, didn't even mention Topps:

That Exploding Battleship was being pushed all year by Topps, by the way.  For some reason, the massively successful Ugly Stickers had a wrapper that was devoid of any Topps logo as well:

By 1966 the new logo was featured prominently on the baseball packs, which also introduced an early version of the baseball design that would be replicated many, many times in future years.  

Some old branding would remain though, such as on this header card on the 1966 Rak Paks:

That's from by the way-go give 'em some love!  I suspect Topps were using up old header cards and of course the branding/logo wasn't even consistently deployed as this 1966 wrapper shows:

It's Topps, so there will always be inconsistencies but by the time the '66 football season had rolled around they were on top of it:

It's around this time that the production codes started to be developed and used.  As I've said previously, those codes require some serious contemplation before they can be dissected but it will happen eventually.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Just a quick note today kids, a nod to the Topps Archives auction held at The National this past week.   No, I did not have an auction but Topps did and they had some real doozies.  I am going to post something from their archives but not something, I don't think, that was auctioned last week.  I am talking about and drooling over this alternate 1957 Sandy Koufax picture, that shows Ebbets Field in all its glory:

What a great shot that is-even better than the one on his actual '57 card:

I would love it if Topps did a real, themed set focusing on the classic Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds shots someday.  It will never happen, but an Archivist can dream.....

UPDATE:  August 10, 2011:  I just realized I inadvertently swiped the alternate Koufax scan from the fabulous Fleer Sticker Blog and not the Topps site-sorry Jon--too many tabs open at the time!  Click here for the Sandy scans and also some other sweet alternate poses.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

That's (Proto) Typical

I am really sorry to have missed this year's National in Chicago.  I went to Baltimore last year and had a blast, visiting in person with online buddies I had never met before and wandering the convention hall in search of various treasures.  There are so many great cards on display it's hard to suck it all in.

This year one of the true rarities being showcased is something previously looked at here, a 1968 Topps 3-D prototype of Brooks Robinson, which Huggins & Scott will be auctioning soon.  I was lucky enough to receive an iPhone photo of it from Friend O'the Archive Josh Adams and after a close look-see, I believe it is a second example of this elusive card.

Produced as a prototype for what became the '68 3-D set, the Robinson card looks something like an inverted '67 regular issue card.  I'll show the previously known copy first and then the new one. Ignore the brightness as I have no idea of the camera or scan settings used originally.

In addition to the crack that's on the previously known example (it runs at a 45 degree angle between the O and L before cutting horizontally across the L and into the middle of the E, then turns 45 degrees again and exits onto the right border parallel to the brim on Brooksie's batting helmet), there are some cropping differences.  The most noticeable ones are the distance between the bottom of his belt buckle and the bottom edge of the card (there's more, uh, length on the newly found version) and the little blob to the left of the bat just below where the label would be if you could see it.

Rather than give you a couple of crotch shots, I'll show the blob, which I have christened Nessie, for reasons that will soon be clear:

Looks like the Loch Ness Monster, right? That's from the version with the crack. The outside border on this card is thin in the scan but it's there. Now check out the other card's Nessie:

It's grown a tail, stretching left to the border!  There are other cropping differences as well but I don't have high-res versions of either card and they are hard to show here.

I am hoping for a back scan to make its way here, it may have some more information on it.  Wish I was there to see it in person!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rooked No More

Well, following last night's bizarre picture posting problem, which appears to be have been caused by some magical metafile mumbo jumbo that can crop up without warning, much like the Spanish Inquisition, I can present the full, ten card visual checklist of the 1971 All Star Rookies now, like so:

That Munson would be the big ticket item in this set, no doubt about it but the ten subjects are all so rare they would probably go for serious juice no matter who is depicted.

The ten players exactly mirror the 1970 Topps Rookie All Star selections, so this is the full set.  John Ellis's photo is taken from his 1970 Yankees Rookie Card:

His Yankee counterpart, Munson, was not taken from the 1970 set photos.  Of the remaining eight cards, Foster and Gallagher did not debut with Topps until 1971, although Cain was in the '69 set, albeit with a different photo. Billy Conigliaro, the less famous of these ball playing brothers was in both the '69 and '70 sets as was Carl Morton, while the other guys made appearances in '70. No 1971 photos were used either, so a concerted effort to use fresh photos was made, with the odd exception of that goofy looking Ellis card (that face! that hat!). All the team logos look like the current versions of the time on these cards too; check out how Carbo had the old Reds cap on his 1970 Topps card, which was clearly updated for the All Stars set:

This leads me to believe Topps was using very current shots from their files for the nine cards that did not have a picture in previous set.

I suspect this set will be auctioned, given that these are the first color photos of it that I can recall seeing, so it's out and about someplace, probably at the National which is in full swing as I type this.  Thanks again to Craig Williamson for the vintage Topps goodness; I'm hoping he can tell me a bit more about their background so stay tuned..