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Collecting 19th century baseball cabinet photos – What to look for

c.1882 Chicago Photographic Studios Chicago White Stockings Team Cabinet Card

I guess, the first question some people may be asking is…what is a cabinet photo? Well, a cabinet photo, or cabinet card as it is also called, was a type of photo used in the 1800-early 1900s. It was essentially a sheet of cardboard with a thin paper photographic print pasted to it. These photos were often quite eye catching and captures various sports in the early stages of their existence. As well as being very collectable, these cards are also quite valuable to historians as they show what uniforms and equipment baseball players used in the 1800s, and also how the games would have been played. Not wishing to state the obvious, however the cabinet card got this name as it was popular in those days to display the photos in cabinets.


19th century baseball cabinet photos tend to be quite rare, especially those made in the early years. If you were to wander into an antique store and pick one up showing a high school baseball team, it may well be one of only four or five in existence. These cards would have been made for the family, or the person portrayed in the picture.


It is usually tricky to date a cabinet photo to the exact year. The trick is to work out what uniform the player is wearing, which obviously requires some research, and then work out what decade the photo munt is from. This would be done by examining the colour, shape and design. When you have worked all that out, the decade of the photo should match that of the mount. If it doesn’t, it is likely you are holding a forgery and it will not be a worthwhile investment! Of course in some cases such as team photos the date will be on the mount, which cuts out a lot of work.

The price for cabinet cards varies massively, from $20 – $20,000. Baseball images are more popular than other sports so they tend to be more expensive. Naturally, the rarer cards tend to be the more expensive ones. Even unknown players on photos dating back to 1860 are seen as extremely rare, partly due to the scarcity of the card and partly down to the fact it shows a player and a uniform of 150 years ago. Of course if the photo is out of focus or damaged in any way, the price will drop.

In terms of names to look out for in regards to value, Cap Anson and Harry Wright are two big names of the early baseball era, and any photos with them on would fetch a very handy price at any auction. The thing to remember for any new collector is older is better, and if you are prepared to be patient in your research, you will soon reap your rewards.



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