How 1800s Cards Were Made
Most 1800s baseball cards were made using antiquated methods.
Many 1800s cards have actual photographs pasted to cardboard backing. This includes the Old Judges, Gypsy Queens, Lone Jacks and all those other cards with sepia photorealistic images.
Those colorful 1880s Allen & Ginters, Buchner Gold Coin, Goodwin Champions and cartoon trade cards were 'handmade' lithographs. Handmade means the designs were made directly onto the printing plate by an artist using special hand held tools. There were no modern photomechanical reproduction techniques available to the printers of these cards. When you look at an Allen & Ginter or Tobin Lithograph, it looks like a little color sketch or painting. These cards were made in the same old school way as Picasso and Marc Chagall made their lithographs that hang in museums.
Halftone Printing and the Introduction of Realistic Printed Images
Though we take for granted the photorealistic pictures printed on Topps cards, magazine covers, cereal boxes and music CD booklets, the technology used to mechanically print realistic pictures did not exist for most of the 1800s.
While the photograph itself has been around since 1839, it took decades before printers could print realistic reproductions of photographs. If you look at an 1860s Harper's Weekly or similar magazine you will see that the pictures resemble hand drawn sketches not photos.
The invention of the half-tone printing process allowed for magazines, newspapers and trading cards to have printed photorealistic images. In a complicated processes involving expensive printing machinery, halftone uses a special screen to translate a photographic image into a pattern of fine dots on the printing plate and the resulting print. This fine dot pattern allowed for detail that could not be achieved before.
If you take a good magnifying glass and examine a modern magazine picture or baseball card, you will see this dot pattern. For a black and white picture, the dots are only black. For a color picture, the dots will be various colors.
For baseball cards, the halftone printing was used only on part of the card. In the below 1963 Topps card, the player's picture, including uniform, hands and face, is made up of the halftone dots. The border design and text are solid ink.
The history of half-tone printing on baseball cards
All or close to all of today's baseball cards are made with halftone printing. A large portion of the early 1900s cards were made with halftone. If you check out a 1920s Exhibit or 1915 Sporting News you will see the dots. However, only a few 1800s baseball cards were made with halftone printing. This includes the 1890s Just So Tobacco and N300 Mayo Cut Plug and one or two obscure and rare trade cards.
Other types of early 1900s cards
Many early 1900s cards were color lithographs. This includes the T206s, T205s, T3 Turkey Reds and many caramel cards. Though made with more a slightly more advanced technology than in the 1800s, these issues carry on the colorful, artistic tradition of the Allen & Ginters.
A few early 1900s cards were actual photographs like in the 1800s. These include the T200 and T222 Fatimas, Fatima Premiums and T5 Pinkerton Cabinets.