During the 19th century, relations between white settlers and Native Americans were combative and complex.
So it seems fitting that the Goudey Gum Company would attempt to document this history in one of the most complicated and controversial vintage non-sports issues ever produced.
The 1933 Indian Gum set (R73), with card backs routinely labeling Native Americans as "cruel," "bloodthirsty" and "murderous," was unveiled in several series and is chock-full of variations and scarcities.
"It's a big set," noted Bob Marcy, whose No. 1 registry collection was named the best pre-war vintage non-sports set by PSA in 2011. "There are 432 cards if you want all of the variations."
"It's a very complicated set, but the easiest way of looking at it is there are 18 subsets of 24 cards," added Jerry Hrechka, who just retired his No. 6 All-Time Finest set. "You need nine [of the subsets] for the base set and 18 for the Master Set. I know people collecting it in subsets of 24 and that makes it less daunting."
A Master Set has yet to be created on the PSA Set Registry. To complete the registry set, collectors must track down the 216 differently numbered cards each measuring 2-3/8" by 2-7/8". These pasteboards showcase chiefs, warriors, generals, frontiersmen and Wild West figures, as well as native rituals, survival practices, war tactics and battles.
Similar in design to the storied 1933 Goudey Baseball cards, the card fronts flaunt colorful artwork.
"The colors pop out at you," said Brent Housteau, who owns the registry's No. 3 set. "The set has a ton of variety and there are some really beautiful cards in it."
Greg Libersher, who has amassed the No. 4 registry set, agrees.
"The artwork is great for the period of time it was created in," he said. "If you get a really high-grade example of one of these cards, you look at it and the colors are just amazing."
The card title is highlighted on the front with the words "INDIAN CHEWING GUM" displayed in a panel across the bottom. In most cases, this panel is red, but cards #25 to #48 can also be found with a blue panel. Hrechka says the blue panel cards were printed for a relatively short period of time.
"They switched from blue ink back to red ink because the blue ink was more expensive," he explained.
Having completed extensive research on this set, Hrechka believes that the blue panel cards were likely printed in collaboration with the 1933 Goudey Sea Raiders (R124) singles, which fashion a similar blue panel.
Despite this popular belief, however, the blue panel Indian Gum singles (series of 48) are more plentiful than the red panel cards from the same series.
"The blue panels are fairly common cards," noted Libersher. "The highest grade I've ever received of a card in series #25 to #48—which has a red panel on the front and says series of 48 on the back—is a PSA [EX] 5. Every one that I have in that little run is beat up. You rarely ever see them. Red panels are probably five times more difficult than the blue panels."
Card backs showcase the card number, title and green text relating to the artwork on the front. The descriptions on the backs often paint a negative picture of Native Americans and their battle tactics, and refer to them in terms that are now considered derogatory.
"I like to read about Native American history, so I have read a lot of the backs," said Housteau. "They are a sign of their times. Many of them could be viewed as racist nowadays. They talk about savages and brutal Indians and stuff like that. Yet part of the reason I collect them is to show people how much our perspective has changed over the century. There are several other Native American sets that depict similar antiquated beliefs and stereotypes, and it's pretty amazing to see how we've changed our views of Native Americans."
Marcy believes that the card backs are a history lesson, one that illustrates how our perceptions of Native Americans have evolved since these cards were released.
"It's history. It's part of the history books," he said of the cards. "Your kids or your grandkids are learning about it. We can't stop that and we shouldn't stop that."
This set becomes particularly complicated when you examine the series number on the backs of the cards. While it has been established that there are 216 different numbered cards, there are varying backs that indicate that the cards are from a series of 24, 48, 96, 192, 216, 264, 288 and 312 cards.
Hrechka also notes that there are two variations of cards #25 to #48 in the series of 192 cards. One version includes the words "More cards" at the end of one line of text, while another splits these two words, making "More" the last word on the first line and "cards" the first word on the second line.
Released in penny packs, these cards were initially distributed in 1933 but may have been released all the way up to 1940, which would explain why there were so many different series notations on the card backs.
"I would say that they released them up until 1939 or 1940," explained Marcy. "I talked to a guy from back East who used to open up these packs [when they were first disseminated]. He remembers that it was during the late '30s, and it could have been early '40s."
Housteau says cards with backs indicating series of 24 were unveiled first and were so popular that Goudey continued releasing the series.
Goudey reportedly used skip numbers to encourage collectors to buy more packs. It's believed that 24 cards between #110 and #152 weren't initially released. Goudey then later used the same artwork from cards #1 through #24 to create cards to fill in the skip numbers between #110 and #152. As a result, while this set consists of 216 differently numbered cards, there are only 192 pictures.
"What I think Goudey would do is start a new series and throw a high number card in it – say card #137. Then collectors would say '137? OK, I need to get 135 and 136.' But Goudey didn't even have those numbers out yet," said Libersher. "They would just throw a high number in there and then try to get the kids to look for the other high numbers, but they hadn't even made them yet."
A consequence of all of these series being produced is that some cards can be found with four different "series of" back variations, while others have just one.
While the PSA Set Registry only requires collectors to track down the 216 differently numbered cards, regardless of the series indicated on the card back, there are some hobbyists that collect all of the variations.
It should also be noted that aside from the skip-numbering, another way that Goudey enticed collectors into buying more packs was by printing backs that indicated that the card was part of a series of 264, 288 or 312 when, in fact, there were only 216 cards.
Collectors seem to agree that the series of 288 card backs are the toughest to track down.
"There are 48 skip number cards in the 288 series (backs)," explained Marcy. "But the card numbers from #110 to #152 are the really tough ones. Then from #154 and up, you see them a little bit more."
"The hardest series is the low number series of 288," he said. "And that's cards #110 to #152. They're all basically the same difficulty."
The series of 24 card backs are also relatively rare, as are the series of 312 singles. Twenty-four cards in the 312 series were printed with white backgrounds on their fronts rather than the standard color backgrounds.
"The white background cards are probably some of the most expensive cards and they're difficult to find in high-grade," said Housteau.
Marcy notes that there are also star cards in the set that are widely coveted. Geronimo (#25), Pocahantas (#33), Sitting Bull (#38), Daniel Boone (#50), Davy Crockett (#52), General Custer (#55), Wild Bill (#59), Buffalo Bill (#60), and Billy the Kid (#78) are all highly desirable cards. A PSA NM-MT 8 Billy the Kid sold for $510.51 in a Mile High Card Company auction in October 2011.
But hobbyists say that most of the star cards are from relatively common series and are not difficult to find. It's the common cards that are generally more elusive. Libersher says finding the Chief Red Cloud (#192) single in top condition has been a challenge.
"It's a series of 312 cards," said Libersher. "And over my years of collecting, the highest I've ever gotten is a [PSA] 5. I've only seen about four or five ever come up for sale."
The first card in the set – Shienne Tribe – has also been difficult for collectors to track down in pristine form. Of the 40 submissions, there have been three PSA EX-MT 6s (with no examples grading higher). Hrechka says this card is especially evasive with a series of 24 back variations.
"I've had low-grade examples – and I'm talking PSA [PR] 1s – and I was getting $150 to $200 for those," he said. "If someone ever finds a [PSA] 6 or 7, it's going to be a four-figure card easy."
One of the biggest challenges for collectors is upgrading their sets.
"There's just not many high-grade examples for sale," said Housteau. "It's hard to upgrade. I think a lot of them change hands privately, and this makes it difficult to find some of the cards."
"I'm not happy with being 100% complete because I just threw some [PSA] 2s and 3s into my set that I'm looking to upgrade," he said.
On top of a dearth of high-grade examples, there has also been more competition for cards in recent years.
"The competition has actually heated up on a lot of the cards," said Libersher. "When I started collecting them, there were probably 15 or 20 cards that weren't even graded."
Hrechka enjoyed a similar experience in assembling his set.
"I would say it's becoming one of the top three most popular R-sets of the 1930s," he said. "The other two are G-Men and Horrors of War."