Imagine, if you will, in some busy telegraph offices at train stations and elsewhere across the U.S. in the mid-1950s, a message comes through for their Western Union operators to dispense:
HEY KIDS! –(STOP)– THE 1955 TOPPS RAILS AND SAILS SET –(STOP)– VIVID COLORS BOTH FRONT AND BACK –(STOP)– TRAINS, BOATS, SHIPS, COLLECT ALL 200 –(STOP)– TELL YOUR FRIENDS –(STOP)
The telegram, marked "URGENT," is then copied, with some posted right outside the railroad ticket office and others handed off to messengers for "delivery" on telephone poles, street lamps and other venues for all passersby to see.
Of course, that type of scenario didn't actually happen, but looking at these cards decades since their initial launch, it almost seems like a plausible marketing plan.
Bill Bengen knows all about the issue, and much like a railroad buff watching a locomotive at high speed or a seafaring enthusiast admiring a fine watercraft, the 1955 Topps Rails and Sails collection excites him when the subject arises.
"I love that set; it's gorgeous. It's one of those '50s sets I remember tearing the wrapper off of, tossing the gum and enjoying the cards," said Bengen. "I was really passionate about it as a kid. When I got an extra dollar, I would go to the stationery store and buy 20 packs of cards."
Around the millennium Bengen took a return trip to some familiar ground from a bygone era.
"I loved those [non-sports] cards as a kid. I saw some at auction and got back into it in 1999 or 2000," said the California-based collector. "This was an opportunity to get some of the cards back that my mother gave away. It was a thrill to get them."
Bengen's passion for the Rails and Sails set did not end with just two cards or even a handful. "Over the years, I bought multiple sets and kept the best," he said. "Set building is an act of great determination and perseverance."
That dedication has led Bengen thus far to the #2 All-Time and Current Finest slots for the offering on the PSA Set Registry.
Collector Alan R. Moon, meanwhile, runs on an almost parallel Rails and Sails track to Bengen, and he owns the #1 All-Time and Current Finest of the issue. "I am a big railroad buff," said Moon, who also possesses the #5 Current Finest example of the set on the Registry.
The first 130 cards highlight vintage and contemporary trains and other rolling stock, while the remaining 70 cards spotlight an even greater swath of time for ships and boats, all with color illustrations. The cards, mostly in a horizontal format, are slightly over-sized by today's standards, but common for the era.
Locomotive 999 (#1) and Flat Top (#200), in addition to being the set's "engine and caboose" of sorts, "are tough to find in nice condition," said Moon, who lives near Syracuse, New York. The issue-starter has 35 samples in PSA holders, with two PSA NM-MT 8s and a PSA MT 9 as its top grades. Meanwhile, card #200, the high numbered/short print, appears only 22 times in the PSA Population Report, with a pair of PSA 8s and one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 as its finest samples thus far.
As expected, the high Rails (#81 to #130) and high Sails (#151 to #200) are a challenge in finer shape compared to their lower numbered counterparts, but Moon noted that the last grouping of railroad cards "are the toughest short prints [in the set] in high grade."
The Pop Report shows the set's first 80 cards usually have around 35 to sometimes 55 graded samples, while the high Rails are normally in the teens to mid-20s. The Sails, however, low or high, are moderately more plentiful on average than their railway cousins.
The Other Side of the Tracks
In addition to the visually striking card fronts, especially for the Rails, Bengen said the collection's flip side delivers "outstanding" results. "There is a lot of diversity in the set and there is an interesting narrative on the backs," he said. "You could really learn a lot from the card backs; they were very stimulating."
Collector John Westwood (#8 Current Finest) said that several characteristics of the card backs, chiefly the Rails, help attract him to the issue. In addition to the trivia question section complementing the main text, he likes the locomotive and rolling stock illustrations and "the card number incorporated into the railroad signal," he said. "I think it is a very good, balanced design."
Westwood, who lives on England's south coast and has collected this set for a handful of years, further added that the train-related card fronts particularly grab his attention. "Some of the images seem to have been inspired by railroad artists such as Leslie Ragan," he said. "I also like the positioning of the title and badge/date on the fronts."
Westwood grew up in the County of Cornwall, a popular summer tourist destination in the United Kingdom, and that's where his collection of the '55 Rails and Sails set first started to take off.
"One of my favorite attractions was the Dobwalls Forest Railroad located in the village of Dobwalls," he said. "It consisted of a 7.25" gauge miniature railway with two routes: one based on the Rio Grande Cumbres Pass line and the other on the Sherman Hill route of the Union Pacific Railroad. There were both diesel and steam locomotives to ride on, and it was great fun."
Years after last visiting that attraction, Westwood spotted some Rails pasteboards on eBay and he was an instant fan of the set – partially because of their design and partly because "the images on the front of the Rails cards reminded me of the locomotives and the happy times I'd experienced at Dobwalls," he said. In 2006, however, the Dobwalls railroad closed. "I felt very sad [about the closing] and named my collection 'In Memory of Dobwalls'."
Thinking Outside the Boxcar
Some of Westwood's favorite Rails cards include the Steam Streamliner (#102) and First Zephyr (#130) because of their Art Deco design. The Zephyr, he added, "also has a futuristic look." Plus, he likes the simply named Steel Box Car (#128), which stands out because of its blatant marketing theme. "I find the product placement/advertising of Bazooka Gum to be clever and amusing," he said.
Moon also mentioned the Bazooka Gum railroad card as a top pick, as well as Theatrical Car (#91) – which he says reminds him of a "circus card" – the Queen Elizabeth (#152) and anything in the set featuring a big steam engine or military ship.
Meanwhile, one of Bengen's favorite Sails is the SS United States (#172), while any day in the rail yard he'll buy a ticket to ride the Steam Locomotive (#126) and The Hiawatha (#104). "Every card," said Bengen, "has such variety and color."
Perhaps Moon best summed up the Rails and Sails collection when he said, "Even though the set has 200 cards, I would've liked to have seen more."
Growing interest in the higher-end condition cards from this offering has recently pushed PSA 9 prices, for most low numbers, to $125 each in the SMR and $195 for the high series cards. In PSA 9, the "bookends" list for $400 to $450 each, respectively. PSA 8 values have also jumped as of late for the harder-to-find samples and list at about half of the PSA 9 price.
Blast from the Past
Bengen, Moon and Westwood certainly pull their weight with this "surf n' turf" set – and often, with several additional vintage non-sport offerings, as well. However, what about the coming years? What fate awaits this particularly colorful '50s issue? Will it be largely forgotten, like some of the cargo that falls off the top of an overloaded coal car as it makes a sharp turn? Or maybe it will sink near the bottom of Cardboard Cove, transforming into an artificial reef of sorts, only to be known to a handful of collectors/wreck divers? Thankfully, those scenarios are unlikely.
"I am hopeful for the future of these older sets," said Moon, "for non-sports is so varied."
While the future popularity of any trading card issue is somewhat uncertain, one thing is a given: if you listen closely, you can hear the whistle of a train or a boat off in the distance. And it just happens to be the 1955 Topps Rails and Sails set signaling that there are always available seats for those willing to join the journey in collecting this eye-catching issue.
Editor's note: Doug Koztoski welcomes comments and questions related to this article via [email protected] The collectors interviewed for this article provided most of its images. All SMR and PSA Set Registry info is accurate as of January 2013.
Copyright © 2014 PSA – A Division of Collectors Universe. Nasdaq: CLCT. All rights reserved.