The Cold War may be over, but collectors are still fighting to complete this "menacing" set.
Unveiled shortly after Communist forces invaded South Korea to begin the Korean War, the 1951 Bowman Red Menace set conveys the fears that many Americans had about "Red" rule.
The artwork on the 48 cards in this set features scenes from the Korean conflict and Soviet attacks, as well as air battles and important military figures. Concentration camps, slave labor and the consequences of an atomic bomb being dropped are also illustrated to reinforce the perceived evils of Communism. The set's third card – Slave Labor – encourages parents to read a U.S. government publication about the "cruelty" of Communism. The set makes it clear that Communists pose a serious threat to the democratic freedom of Americans.
While some may dismiss these cards as propaganda today, others insist that they accurately expressed the anxiety of Americans in 1951.
"Actually, history has vindicated this set," said Kurt Kuersteiner, webmaster of www.monsterwax.com and www.monstercards.org. "After the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of the files that have come forward show that a lot of the "Red Scare" that had been dismissed in the American media for years had sufficient grounds for concern. It all sounded kind of absurd to some people at the time, and they always felt like it was exaggeration, but there was a very true cold war going on."
Bill Bengen, who owns the No. 3 All-Time Finest, 1951 Bowman Red Menace set on the PSA Set Registry, remembers being fearful of Communism as a child.
"The set reminds me so much of the fear of Communism that I had when I was a kid," he said. "This set really nails it in terms of the emotional content that we all felt back then."
Tom King, who also contributed to the 1949 Bowman Wild West issue, was one of the artists that worked on these cards. Reportedly using news reports for inspiration, Gordon Palmer, who was responsible for the text on the 1951 Bowman Jets, Rockets, Spacemen cards, penned the card backs for this issue.
Card fronts boast colorful artwork and no text, while the backs feature a card number, title and description of the scene on the front. The words "Children's Crusade Against Communism," as well as a white star representing democracy and a red star that stands for communism, are also pictured on the backs.
"It's a very, very colorful set and there are some truly beautiful cards," noted Bengen.
Backs can be found in tan or gray stock. Kuersteiner says that the different card stocks could be attributed to Bowman running out of one stock and resorting to the other. Another possible explanation could be that after a first print run sold out, the company used a different card stock to distinguish the second printing from the first, offered Kuersteiner.
Some hobbyists prefer to have the same-colored backs on all of their cards. So far, neither back commands a premium.
Cards were released in five-card, five-cent packs with bubble gum. Wrappers are pale blue and flaunt the words "Fight the Red Menace." The packs also showcase white and red stars.
"Packs are extremely scarce," said Marty Quinn, who owns the No. 1 set on the PSA Set Registry. "I wouldn't say wrappers are rare, but you don't see them on eBay every day either."
In 1995, non-sports card pioneer Bob Marks uncovered a display box that provided further explanation about the "Children's Crusade Against Communism" that's advertised prominently on the card backs. The bottom of the display box boasts a "Crusader's Oath" that reads:
"I believe in God, and in the God given freedom of man. I believe in the United States of America and the United Nations. I believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people . . . I am against any system which enslaves men and makes them merely tools of the State. I pray for the people who must live under such a system. I pray that they may be delivered from oppression. I pledge my faith, loyalty and devotion to the cause of freedom for all mankind."
Though this message may seem radical today, these cards continue to be coveted by collectors.
Atomic Doom (#19), which pictures a family huddled together amidst the devastation caused by an atomic bomb, is one of the set's most gripping and popular singles. Of the 57 examples submitted, there has been one PSA MINT 9 and 10 PSA NM-MT 8s. A PSA 8 sold for $218.50 on eBay in May 2010.
According to the PSA Population Report, Ghost City (#23) is the most frequently submitted card from this issue. Showcasing a skeletal spirit looming over the ruins of what appears to be Times Square, this card depicts the artist's idea of what an atomic bomb could do to a "great American city."
"The card has extraordinary imagery. It's haunting," said Bengen. "You don't forget a card like that. And if you showed that card to a kid in the '50s, they would probably say, 'Yeah, that's what I dream about at night. That's what I have nightmares about.'"
"The image on that card goes back to the (1938) Horrors of War card #240 (The Frightful Cost of War), where it shows the Grim Reaper with the sickle," he said. "It's almost reminiscent of that."
Of the 72 copies evaluated, there is one PSA 9 and five PSA 8s. A PSA NM 7 fetched $260.55 on eBay in August 2009.
The pasteboards of United States generals – Douglas MacArthur (#2 MacArthur Heads UN Forces) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (#24 General "Ike" in Command) – are also coveted by collectors. But it's the card of Mao Tse-tung (#47 War-Maker), "leader of the Chinese Reds," that tends to sell for the most. This card pictures a green-faced Tse-tung against a red background that also features a gorilla with a bloody sword. The card text says that Tse-tung "delights in war" and that "The free world must find a way to keep war makers like Mao Tse-tung from shedding the blood of innocent people."
"The Mao card is very popular," said Quinn. "It sells for more than the generals do. The image is haunting. It's got the red background and the gorilla. It's actually a great villain card."
"It's not uncommon for a particularly famous villain to command a higher price in non-sports sets than the good guys do," he noted. "The Hitler cards in the Horrors of War series come to mind."
Of the 46 War-Maker cards submitted, there have been six PSA 8 copies (with nothing grading higher). One sold for $729 on eBay in September 2010.
The set's first card Reds Invade South Korea and the last card Doughboy's General are the most difficult to track down in PSA 8 or better condition (See Accompanying Chart). Just one PSA 8 has been uncovered of the first card, and a PSA 7 commanded $199.99 on eBay in May 2010.
Thirty-eight copies of the last card have been evaluated and there is one PSA 9 (no PSA 10s and no PSA 8s). Being the top and bottom cards on collectors' piles made these cards vulnerable to damage.
Compared to its non-sports contemporaries (See Accompanying Chart), Red Menace cards are extremely difficult to find in top condition.
"I imagine these cards were pretty popular with kids," said Bengen. "This set is a bear. It really is. And that's why when high-grade cards come up, they really command high prices."
Fantasy Trade Card Company and WTW Productions produced a reprint set of these cards in 1986. This set not only boasted reproductions of the original 48 cards, but it featured 24 additional pasteboards, including one of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin.
"Some of the artwork in the extension set isn't complete," noted Kuersteiner, who adds that this set can generally be purchased for around $50.
Collecting the original set, however, will set hobbyists back significantly more than the reprint set. As you can see, that while the Cold War may be over, collectors are continuing to fight to assemble this "menacing" set.
"The Red Menace set is still very popular because it captures the nostalgia of the era," said Kuersteiner. "It's a beautiful set. It was well-executed and it has a lot of history in it."
"This is just a fun set to collect," he said. "It's very much a period piece. But it's a time I hope we don't go back to."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Legendary Auctions and Marty Quinn provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of press time.