Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Envelope Please

I've been mulling some pieces of paper of late, namely some very rare Topps wrappers.  Last time out I showed a 1968 test basketball wrapper, which was really a paper envelope. This type of "wrapper" made the little light bulb go off above my head as I knew there was also a paper wrapper associated with the 1970 Topps Flags of the World issue. Actually, it turns out there were two.

We have seen in previous posts that Flags of the World were a recurring theme at Topps; indeed at many other confectionery and tobacco companies as well, since they were tried and true sellers back in the vintage days. 1949, 1950 and 1956 saw Flags issues from Topps, then a break occurred until 1970 when another issue came out, possibly in the wake of a general, societal push to make U.S. school kids more aware of the United Nations in the late 1960's.  I'll get into the numerous permutations and inserts of the 1970 issue someday but want to focus on its paper wrapper.

Jeff and Bob Marks, writing in The Wrapper #92, cite a five cent wrapper comprised of a test sticker affixed to tan envelope. I only have scan from the article to demonstrate:

The 61-75 handwritten notation at the top is in line with other Topps test pieces I have seen. The 61 is the project number; the 75 is a bit more mysterious.  Most Topps production codes from 1966 onward use the last digit to signify the year of production but only for retail products, where the full code resembles something like a Social Security number.  Test codes often seem to end in 5, just like what is shown above and are usually in the shorter format we see here.  

Compare this to the 1968 test Basketball wrapper:

I actually found a back scan of the basketball wrapper since last episode:

You can see the flaps of the envelope quite clearly.  I would ignore the handwritten date at the top, I suspect it was added by a collector, not Topps.

So why envelopes?  Well, Topps was already using them for certain mid 60's issues, mostly of the "novelty" variety as opposed to cards.  Wise Ties is one example but there are quite a few others from this time frame so they were on the mind of Topps brass at the time.  Usually though, they were for products that came without gum.

Two scenarios seem likely to my mind: Firstly, Topps may have been testing wrappers; I am assuming it was cheaper to use an envelope vs. a wax wrapper. The envelopes could also have been used in a scenario where the cards were being tested and it was easier than cranking up the ol' wrapping machinery just to use some already available envelopes.  It is also possible both actions were occurring at the same time. 

The way Topps tested products at the time was interesting.  Internal pitches were made by Woody Gelman's creative team, using mockups often times grafted together from some new artwork and pre-existing product. Topps executives would then be asked to approve a project based upon such presentaions. This was a highly competitive process and only about 1 in 10 projects would get the go ahead. At this point full design of a proof version would occur and sample run of very small size would be run off by the printer; often this would only be 22 or 28 cards of the planned total. Sometimes these would be complete cards, other times only fronts were produced. Short runs such as this were likely responsible for all the black & white mid 60's test issues; these short runs could have been for both internal and external use, I can't quite tell and both scenarios are possible.

Once they had some cards to hand out, Topps would form a focus group, where kids would be gathered at a test site, sometimes run by a third party.  Cards would be distributed and observations made as to how the children reacted to cards and how they would play with them.  Other times they would go to a local elementary or junior high school yard in Brooklyn, near Topps HQ in Sunset Park and hand out test packs (hard to imagine that going well today but it was a different time) to gauge the reactions.  Both methods could have been used for a single product, either in tandem or one after the other.  These are the points where I believe the envelopes would have come into play.

Once this stage was finished, the product either got killed off, dramatically reconfigured or advanced to a retail test. Sometimes tweaks were made before the test boxes hit the shelves, sometimes not.  In Brooklyn, this was where the mythical "Cortelyou Avenue Candy Store" would enter the picture.  In Pennsylvania, following the move of the confectionery production line and warehousing to Duryea in 1966, retail tests were made in a similar fashion in Scranton and environs, near the plant.  Packs would generally be made of white waxed paper, with a sticker affixed to the front and sometimes a smaller one, listing ingredients if the pack held gum, slapped across the back and acting to help seal the pack. Tested products would have to pass this trial before full retail production commenced.  Even after the final test, some refinements would often be made to the cards; usually (but not always) these were minor in nature.

The method was not foolproof as some sets would test well but vanish without a trace at the retail level.  Still, Topps apparently did a test for every issue they wanted to retail; although this would seemingly exclude recurring annual sports issues such as baseball and football.  Any baseball or football supplemental sports sets would have gone through this process however.  These envelopes would have been a quick way for Topps to test product; so much so I wonder if they were produced for other sets.  Their rarity would make this a difficult proposition to research. The stickers affixed to the envelopes would have been reused for the wax tests packs I think.

The five cent price points on both the above wrappers would point to 1968 or early 1969 tests as Topps went to ten cents on their retail wax packs in mid 1969. The box that the Flags test packs came in is also known and carries a Brooklyn address with a zip code.  Topps changed to a  Duryea address in mid 1969 so that further locks the date in. I mentioned another paper wrapper for Flags of the World and I'll get into that next time.

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