The first baseball cards served one purpose - advertising. During the mid 1880's cigarettes were lagging behind cigars as the preferred method for smoking tobacco. But innovative techniques by America's tobacco companies produced a "Virginia tobacco" cigarette not mixed with the more common "Turkish leaves". A cheaper more affordable cigarette was born and working Americans took to it. By the late 1880's cigarettes were being sold in sliding boxes. A piece of cardboard separated the two levels of cigs in the box and manufacturers began decorating those cards with baseball-related themes. On one side of the card was a depiction of a ballplayer, on the other advertising for the tobacco company. The baseball card was born.
It wasn't only tobacco companies that got into the mix. Other businesses also used baseball-related images to sell their items. From shoe shops to clothiers, companies used these "trade cards" to advertise their wares.
1887 N172 Old Judge - Dave Foutz (Brown's Champions)
But it was tobacco companies that we readily associate these early cards with. In 1887 Goodwin & Co. issued cards in their Old Judge (see above) and Gypsy Queen cigarette packs. The cards measure 1-7/16 by 2 1/2 inches and contained advertising on the front. The cards were nothing more than photographs pasted onto thick cardboard. Since photography was in it's early stages, ballplayers were expected to hold their pose for quite some time. Thus many of the cards have balls hanging from strings in poses where players are attempting to make a catch. The set is designated N172 in the American Card Catalog. While these cards are available today they're not cheap. You should expect to pay about $100 for a common player in good condition.
1887 N284 Buchner Gold Coin - Dan Brouthers
Also produced in 1887 is the more obcsure N284 Buchner Gold Coin (see above). These cards were issued with chewing tobacco and were drawings rather than photographs. The player depicted was not necesarilly the player named on the card - standard drawings were common to position. Advertising was included on the back. While these early cards are harder to find, you should expect to pay several hundred dollars for an example in good condition.
1888 N135 Duke Talk of the Diamond - A Foul Catch
While there were dozens of sets by dozens of makers in this early period, one of the most obscure is the 1888 N135 Duke Talk of the Diamond (see above) set of 25 cards. These cards did not have specific players but baseball themes. The cards were color illustrations of popular baseball expressions, many with a negative racial twist. Advertising on the back of the cards promoted brands like Honest Long Cut, but with the absence of specific players, these cards are not very popular. Examples go for under $50 if you can find them.