While most people associate the concept of trading cards with sports and their most famous players—even non-baseball fans are dimly aware of the value of a “mint” card of a legendary slugger—the cardboard treatment isn’t just reserved for major league endeavors. It turns out that you can make anything into a fun trading card, from musicians to toys to actual wars, and the popular wax packs of the '80s and '90s delivered on that in a big way.
The wax pack format gave the buyer more than just cards—most sets included the standard trading cards, a collectable sticker (sometimes a standalone and sometimes part of a larger picture), and a piece of bubble gum. And, yes, if you find an unopened wax pack and crack that baby open, most sticks of gum have retained their shape—though you probably wouldn’t want to pop them into your mouth. While not all of our picks here are true wax packs, they’re all just a bit too weird to believe ever existed (and still do!).
1. The Blair Witch Project
While the 1999 horror film was one of the first big screen features to utilize the web for viral marketing (remember when people thought it was actually a true story?), The Blair Witch Project took a surprisingly traditional marketing route when it came to its 72-piece trading card set. Issued by Topps, the foil-wrapped cards were unexpectedly arty, creepy, and haunting – but they also relied on the lure of “randomly inserted” special foil cards to keep buyers snatching them up left and right. Nevermind the nightmares.
2. Yo! MTV Raps
Though it’s hard to imagine earning street cred from a pack of cards, the 1991 Yo! MTV Raps sort of gave that to its buyers—after all, name another set of cards that could provide you with details about Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, KRS-One, and even Young Black Teenagers. Each card included fun facts about popular acts, perfect for impressing your music snob friends. Quick! What’s Big Boi’s real name?
3. Saved By the Bell
Of course Saved By the Bell got its own trading card set (even Saved By the Bell: The College Years got one!), because what could be more hip than a fully numbered set of snazzy promo pics of your favorite television show stars? Though the Saved By the Bell cards didn’t come with gum or a lock of Zack’s hair, they were highly collectible and fun to trade. Here, take my Slater.
4. 21 Jump Street
A number of wax packs featured hand-drawn original art on their wrappers, and while that’s certainly a creative way to go, the results were sometimes questionable. Take Topps’ 1987 set of cards for television’s smash hit 21 Jump Street—who is that on the wrapper? Is it star Johnny Depp, or is it a weird amalgamation of Depp and Richard Greico? We will never know, but at least there’s some gum inside for you to chew while you mull it over.
It’s weird enough to remember ALF as just a popular television show—a popular television show about a foul-mouthed alien who unhinges his adopted human family thanks to both his hijinks and his constant attempts to eat neighborhood cats—but it’s even stranger to remember that Topps gave the show a two-series trading card run back in the '80s. Like any good wax pack, the Topps card included stickers to form full puzzles. Each pack also included one “bouillabaseball player” card, featuring one of Gordon Shumway’s favorite players.
6. Saturday Night Live
Bad news, guys, the Saturday Night Live trading cards from 1992 are not funny. Sure, they may be funny in retrospect—or, at least, the skits and characters they try to portray may be funny in retrospect—but they are really just a big, vintage slice of the lackluster. Tucked right in next to your cool Wayne’s World cards, you’re likely to find a random black and white still of Jane Curtin doing … some role … you can’t quite remember.
7. Desert Storm
Wait, trading cards for a war? It sure seems a bit, well, strange, but back in the 1960s, there was even a trading card set for “The Men of the Green Berets.” There have also been card runs for World War II and Vietnam. That doesn’t sound very stealth, does it? Here’s hoping no potential combatants ever pick up their own set of the Desert Storm cards, because they’ll soon learn what a Tomahawk missile looks like in flight or what a “carpet bombing” is.
8. The X-Files
The truth is out there and it’s also totally on one of the many trading card packs issued for the enduring Fox television classic. The “super premium” sets included character cards and creepy scenes from the actual show, a nice double dose of the fun and the informative (just like the show itself!).
9. New Kids on the Block
It doesn’t matter who your favorite Kid on said Block was, if you were an NKOTB fan, you had a pack or two of Topps very classy trading card sets. The wax packs featured glossy concert pics, nifty stills (just imagine the fashion), and a sticker to boot. The backs of the cards also included everything you’d want to know about the Kids – like favorite color and full name. What is Donnie Wahlberg’s middle initial? Turn to the cards, kid.
Not every trading card set can be both very cool and very informative, but Mattel’s run of Barbie cards back in 1990 managed to straddle that line with nothing but style. Reminiscent of sports trading cards, each of the 300 available in the set featured a special Barbie doll on the front (including plenty of vintage options) and a bevy of fun facts on the back to feed the obsession of even the most hardcore Barbie fan. The doll maker has done a few other rounds of cards, but the 1991 run is unquestionably the most classic (and classy!).
11. Gremlins 2
While the first film is clearly the far superior pick when it comes to movie-watching, the trading cards for the Gremlins sequel are surprisingly far better than the originals. After all, they are the only set to feature multiple cards centering on a scene that sees film critic Leonard Maltin getting overcome by angry mogwai. A must-have for any movie fan.
Even a high-tech film like Tron can translate to the trading card medium—especially when some of the wax packs came with snazzy lightcycle stickers to paste all over your stuff. Even better? The cards include tips for winning the Tron video game, so maybe now is the time to pull out your old amusements and get cracking. You can finally win!
13. Garbage Pail Kids
It’s impossible to talk about the trading card craze of the '80s and '90s without mentioning the multiple runs of Garbage Pail Kids cards, a Cabbage Patch Kids send-up that got its start as a trading card set. These things were everywhere, and whole boxes of them are still available online, at thrift shops, and around flea markets. If you’re a child of the '80s or '90s whose favorite form of humor is “gross-out,” the odds are high that the kids o’ the pails helped get you there.
14. Back to the Future II
Is there a more classic wax pack than a Back to Future II wax pack? It has it all—the cards, the sticker, the bubble gum, all wrapped up in a handy package that assures you that you’re buying a “hit movie!” branded item. The series featured scenes from the movie, snappy lines, and even nifty numbering to keep them straight. (Don’t underestimate the power of numbered cards in a film about the complications of time travel.)
15. Jurassic Park
Any proven fan of the best cinema of the nineties still remembers Jurassic Park with tremendous fondness, and Topps’ multiple card sets reflect that perfectly. No, really, there’s some actual reflection here—at least when it comes to the random “action hologram” cards that popped in some sets. While not everyone got them, the wax packs still came with plenty of movie scenes, character cards, and behind-the-scenes peeks to feed a dino-sized hunger.
16. Cyndi Lauper
We may never know exactly why Cyndi Lauper got her own 33-card set of trading pieces back in 1985, but they sure as shooting exist for public consumption, and they’ve got the colors to prove it. These things are bright, though you wouldn’t know it from their understated pink, black, and white packages. Inside was a nice surprise for fans—beyond just gum and cards, there were three stickers. Fun indeed!
17. Indiana Jones
There are a shocking number of Indiana Jones trading card sets out there, but the first run from Topps is still the best. It’s a classic wax pack—hand-drawn package, gum, stickers, cards—and that’s nothing to sniff at (or whip at, really). Packed with movie scenes and character cards, what more could you ask for? Fine, you could always round out your collection with some Raiders and Temple of Doom cards, if that sort of thing fills up your cup.
18. Howard the Duck
Howard the Duck may now be remembered as one of the worst comic book movies ever made, but its wax pack proudly proclaims that the cards inside are from a “new hit movie!” Sure, you weirdo little duck, that’s just fine. Enjoy the lie. (You can also enjoy the standard movie cards, sticker, and gum, though we don’t recommend trying to blow bubbles with a beak.)
19. Creature Feature
The Creature Feature collection may be best known for its 1973 run, but the movie monsters got a fresh spin in a 1980 set, too. The classic baddies—think Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, and the Phantom of the Opera—got the big pack treatment with the Topps cards. Each package included one sticker, one piece of bubble gum, and 12 photo cards. It’s okay to scream about this one—even if it’s partially out of terror.
Sadly, these guys did not come packaged with Reese’s Pieces—the wax packs got the standard bubble gum treatment. Crammed with ten cards and one sticker, the E.T. packs held lots of good stuff (a card depicting “Michael’s Farewell” might still make you cry) and plenty of filler (such as the card showing a confused E.T. standing around open-mouthed, punched up by the caption “Stranded!”). Brilliant stuff, really, but a must-own for any Spielberg fan. Reach out and touch them.
21. Return to Oz
Hopefully the terror of this bizarre Wizard of Oz follow-up has finally worn off, and now you can actually enjoy having a pack or two of these cards in your presence. Wait, no, no, still too soon. Pumpkinheaded nightmares ahoy, visions of “wheelers” dancing in our heads, and a strong desire to get back to Kansas—all our warning signs that you might be checking out one of these wax packs right now. Run.
The beloved Beetlejuice spawned its own wacky animated series that, in turn, spawned an adorably strange set of trading cards. While the packs didn’t provide many actual trading cards—five per pack—they did come with one very impressive glow-in-the-dark sticker. It’s the perfect thing to affix to your copy of the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased”!
23. Nintendo Game Pack
What a racket! The five-card packs—three scratch-off game pieces and two stickers—were aimed at both people who had Nintendos (they included gameplay tips) and people who didn’t (why would you be in need of a scratcher to play Mario if you had a system at home?). Sure, it sounds brilliant in theory (at least for the team at Nintendo), but what were buyers to do with the scratched off cards once they were, well, scratched off? Those things only had one life.
The 1984 Dune big screen adaptation may have been a bit of a bust, but the associated Fleer cards are still very cool pieces of movie memorabilia. No matter how modern the film itself tried to be, these wax packs are nothing short of a perfectly classic example of the standard set—ten cards, one sticker, one piece of gum. Revolutionary.
Though the 1980 run of Pac-Man trading cards is guilty of some of the worst wax pack crimes—rub-off games, too few cards, a reliance on knowing the source material—it is ultimately saved by one key element. Cute stickers. Really cute stickers. Little munching Pac-Men, scary ghosts, funny lines—and you get two per pack. Worth it.