15 Highly Collectible Facts About Topps

slgckc via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
slgckc via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Founded as a gum manufacturer in 1938 by the Shorin family of Brooklyn to remedy their ailing tobacco interests, the Topps Company—named for their desire to be “tops” in sales—has become synonymous with sports collecting. From pioneering the modern baseball card to inciting controversy with the Garbage Pail Kids, the company has rarely seen a dull moment. Here’s everything you need to know about some of the most expensive cardboard around.

1. Early Topps cards wanted you to add water. 

Topps

After spending most of their first decade devoted to chewing gum—including their legendary Bazooka bubblegum—Topps decided to offer more incentive for customers to pass up competition like Dubble Bubble. In 1949, they began to package gum with trading cards dubbed Hocus Focus that appeared blank. When kids lightly moistened the surface with water and pressed it against the “blue magic paper," images of baseball greats like Jackie Robinson and actors like Clark Gable would appear. A single card and gum piece was priced at one penny; six pieces of gum and six cards cost a nickel.

2. The Topps gum was hard for a reason. 

While the highly elastic, block-shaped Bazooka bubblegum proved to be a delicious hit with consumers, the rigid sticks of gum inserted into early trading card packs proved largely unappealing to developing jaws. The reason? Owing to the manufacturing process, the sticks had to be hard enough to be mechanically injected into the card packs without breaking. In 1992, the company finally discontinued the insert after collectors complained it left a residue on their cards.

3. Topps made a board game. 

Before growing to dominate the baseball card scene, Topps was eager to try out different marketing efforts that could expand the brand beyond gum. In 1948, Topps commissioned a private mint to manufacture a series of metal coins featuring all the presidents up to Truman. The coins were not popular sellers, so Topps used their remaining stock to populate a board game titled Meet the Presidents. Released in 1953, the game consisted of trivia questions that players could use to accumulate the coins.

4. Topps invented the modern baseball card. 

Until Topps employee Sy Berger got his hands on them, baseball cards were little more than simple monochrome portraits that had been largely unchanged since their debut in the 19th century. Berger, a card designer, tweaked the template to include a color border, a faux autograph, team logos, and biographical and statistical information on the card back beginning in 1951 and 1952. In 2004, Topps honored Berger with his own card.

5. Unfortunately, the first Topps baseball card was a disaster.

Before Berger perfected the baseball card, the company’s first attempt was not a hit with fans. With smaller photos framed by different baseball plays, collectors could use them as playing cards to simulate a game. While innovative, kids weren’t interested; the taffy that replaced the gum—to avoid legal issues with a rival, Bowman, who claimed to have exclusivity in gum sets—absorbed the card varnish, leaving a disgusting aftertaste. After ironing out the wrinkles, Berger’s 1952 set was a hit. The company bought Bowman in 1956, and enjoyed decades of card domination.

6. Topps dumped priceless cards into the ocean. 

While Topps’s foray into baseball was a success, the company still had leftover stock from its 1952 series that immediately became outdated once the season was over. After printing a second run, Berger decided to scuttle more than two million cards by hiring garbage trucks to load the cards onto a barge and dump them into the Atlantic Ocean off New York Bay. Among the castoffs: Mickey Mantle’s 1952 "rookie" card (his actual rookie card was a Bowman from the year before). Owing to their scarcity, a Mantle in pristine condition can go for well over $1 million.

7. Mars Attacks! got Topps in big trouble.

Topps had long supplemented its sport card efforts with entertainment offerings, but a 1962 series about an alien invasion proved to be too ambitious for its time. Mars Attacks! was a hand-painted collection by artist Norman Saunders depicting Martians skewering human forces in a hostile Earth takeover. Owing to the violent content, a Connecticut district attorney phoned Topps cautioning them against distributing the material in his state. Fearing wider negative publicity, they stopped producing the cards. (A 50th anniversary set was issued in 2012.)

8. Topps once issued an x-rated Star Wars card. 

In the late 1970s, there was no hotter film license than Star Wars, and Topps was fortunate enough to secure the licensing for a trading card series before the film became a blockbuster. In an attempt to flesh out multiple releases, Topps employees combed through every available still image in the Lucasfilm archives. When they found a photo of C-3PO, no one appeared to notice that the droid appeared to sport robot genitalia--a likely result of a costume malfunction. An untold number of the cards made it into circulation. Once the mistake was discovered, Topps airbrushed the offending portion out.

9. Topps marketed some disgusting candy. 

Long before Topps’s Garbage Pail Kids sent parents into hysterics, the company had struck a nerve in the 1970s with Garbage Can-Dy, a plastic trash pail filled with Pez-type treats shaped like rotting fish and dirty socks. They also marketed Barfo, a repulsive dispenser with a human head and an accordion-shaped body that vomited out gelatinous goop.

10. Topps offered Helen Keller's autograph. 

Collectors have long been enticed into buying packs of cards with the promise of happening upon a “chase,” or limited-edition, card with an athlete’s autograph or game-used uniform swatch. In 2009, Topps expanded that notion to include historical figures, including the blind and deaf disabilities advocate Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, and Kurt Vonnegut.

11. Topps printed the world's largest baseball card. 

Topps

In a 2013 promotional stunt, Topps unveiled a 60-foot-by-90-foot card of Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder near the team’s spring training center in Lakeland, Florida.

12. Buzz Aldrin once sued Topps.

Topps thought it was honoring astronaut Buzz Aldrin when it included a photograph of his moon walk—Aldrin, however, was annoyed rather than flattered. A fierce protector of his likeness, he sued Topps in 2010 for using his image without permission. According to the Los Angeles Times, Topps countered that the First Amendment protected them from retaliation when including Aldrin in a series called "American Heritage: Heroes Edition." The court agreed in 2011, ruling that trading cards are “expressive works.” Aldrin dropped his appeal in exchange for not being sent a bill for the company’s legal fees.  

13. Topps also got into comics. 

Topps

The comic book explosion of the 1990s was not lost on Topps, who felt that the impressive distribution system they already had in place from their card business would give them an advantage over the competition. In 1992, they announced the debut of Topps Comics, a line featuring licensed adaptations (The X-Files, Friday the 13th) and concepts introduced by legendary artist Jack Kirby. The line folded in 1998.  

14. Topps sold cards that buyers didn't want to actually touch.

Eager to capitalize on the speculative market, in 2001 Topps offered consumers the option of purchasing cards via their website as “Initial Player Offerings,” or IPOs. Modeled after stocks, a buyer could choose to let Topps keep the card in storage so they could be traded or sold with other collectors at a later date. Barry Bonds “opened” at $9.50 and shot up to $28.90. While novel, the company ended the strategy in 2012.

15. Topps will print you a custom card. 

Part of the fun of becoming a professional athlete is getting your likeness emblazoned on a trading card. Unfortunately, that kind of talent is hard to come by. If you’re a weekend warrior, Topps is willing to fabricate a card with your photo, name, and statistics and print it on acid-free, laminated card stock. They’ll even accommodate mass quantities. If you order too many, remember: There’s always the Atlantic Ocean.

6 Grammar Lessons Hidden in Christmas Songs

Digital Vision./iStock via Getty Images Plus
Digital Vision./iStock via Getty Images Plus

Drop these facts about the grammar in your favorite carols when you're out caroling this holiday season.

1. "Round Yon Virgin"

The Carol: "Silent Night"

The round in “Silent Night” might call up imagery of the soft, maternal kind, but in the phrase “round yon virgin,” it simply means “around.” Yon is an antiquated word for “that one” or “over there.” The meaning of the phrase in the song depends on the line before it. It should be understood in the context “all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.” In other words: “Everything is calm and bright around that virgin mother over there and her child.” In technical terms, “round yon virgin mother and child” is a prepositional phrase.

2. "Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol"

The Carol: "Deck the Halls"

Trolling a carol might sound like some obnoxious attempt to undermine it, but it’s actually a great way to get in the holiday spirit. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), one of the meanings of troll, in use since the 16th century, is “to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.” It’s related to the sense of rolling, or passing around, and probably came to be used to mean singing because of rounds, where the melody is passed from one person to the next. The modern, obnoxious sense of troll comes from a much later importation from Scandinavian mythology. People have increasingly been changing this line to “toll the ancient Yuletide carol” (now over 17,000 hits on Google). Don’t let the trolls win! Let’s troll the trolls by dragging this word back to the cheery side!

3. "The Little Lord Jesus Laid Down His Sweet Head"

The Carol: "Away in a Manger"

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed / The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” This line is a perfect storm of lay/lie confusion. The correct form here is laid, but it often gets changed to “lay,” and with good reason. Laid is the past tense of lay, which should be used here because the little Lord Jesus isn’t simply reposing (lying), but setting something down (laying), namely, his head.

If it were in the present tense, you could say he “lays down his sweet head.” But in the past tense lay is the form for lie. I know. It’s a rule that seems rigged just to trip people up. But here, it gets even worse, because the word right after laid is down. There’s a word ending with D followed by a word beginning with D. When you say “laid down,” it’s hard to tell whether that first D is there or not. As a practical matter, both lay and laid sound exactly the same in this context. So you can fudge it when you sing it. Just be careful how you write it.

4. "You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry"

The Carol: "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

That’s right, Santa Claus is coming to town, so you better watch out. Or is it “you’d better watch out”? Many grammar guides advise that the proper form is “you’d better” because the construction comes from “you had better,” and it doesn’t make sense without the had. The problem is, it doesn’t make much sense with the had either, if you want to do a picky word-by-word breakdown.

Though the had better construction has been a part of English for 1000 years, it came from a distortion of phrases like “him were better that he never were born,” where were was a subjunctive (“it would have been better”) and him (or me, you, us) was in the dative case (“him were better” equals “it would have been better for him”). People started changing the dative to the subject case (“he were better”) and then changed the were to had.

That was all hundreds of years ago. Then, in the 1800s, people started dropping the had. The grammar books of the late 1800s tried mightily to shore up the had (some even making up a rule from nowhere that it should be would, as in “he would better”), but these days the bare form is considered correct, if a bit casual for formal contexts. Clearly, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” wants nothing to do with fancy formality. So “you better watch out” is the way to go.

5. "With the Kids Jingle Belling" and "There’ll Be Much Mistletoeing"

The Carol: "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

There is a lot of verbing going on in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” First, “With the kids jingle belling/And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer,'” and then, “There’ll be much mistletoeing/And hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.” Of course, in a song, concessions to rhythm and rhyme need to be made, and sometimes this involves making up a few words. But the practice of turning nouns into verbs is as old as English itself. Many of our verbs started when someone decided to use a noun to stand for some verbal notion related to that noun. First we had hammer, and from that we made hammering. First we had message, and now we have messaging. Oil, oiling, sled, sledding, battle, battling. The meaning of the verb is built off some context involving the noun, which could be almost anything (pounding with a hammer, sending a message, putting oil on, riding a sled, engaging in a battle). So verbs for “ringing jingle bells” or “kissing under the mistletoe” aren’t so strange at all. At least no more strange than “gifting” or “dialoguing.”

6. "God rest you merry, gentlemen"

The Carol: "God Rest You Merry Gentleman"

Notice the comma placement there? The gentlemen in this phrase are not necessarily taken to be merry already. It’s not “Hey, you! You merry gentlemen! God rest you!” It’s “Hey, you gentlemen over there! May God rest you merry!”

In Shakespeare’s time, rest you merry was a way to express good wishes, to say something like “peace and happiness to you.” Other versions were rest you fair or rest you happy. It came from a sense of rest meaning “be at ease,” which we still use in the phrase rest assured. In “God rest you merry,” you is the object of rest, so when people make the song sound more old-timey by substituting ye for you, they are messing up the original grammar because ye was the subject form.

Actually, that’s not quite true, because even in Shakespeare’s time, ye was sometimes used as the object form. However, if you want to go that way, you should be consistent with your pronouns and sing “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing ye dismay.” In the second line you is also an object, as in “Let nothing dismay you.”

So rest you merry this season, and enjoy your jingle belling, mistletoeing, and trolling.

12 Fascinating Facts About Queen Victoria

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Much like Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria was never expected to ascend to the British throne. Born on May 24, 1819, the young royal known as Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent defied all odds when she became Queen Victoria on June 20, 1837, less than a month after her 18th birthday.

Victoria ruled the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for more than 60 years, and in 1876 she adopted the title of Empress of India. Victoria didn’t oversee her empire alone, though. In 1840 she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and together they had nine children (including Victoria’s successor, King Edward VII). Here are 12 things you might not have known about Queen Victoria.

1. Queen Victoria was born fifth in line to the throne, which made her an unlikely ruler.

Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834
Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834.
George Hayter, The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne, just behind her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who was fourth in line behind his three older brothers (none of whom had any living children—or at least no legitimate issue). Victoria's position in the line of succession placed her ahead of Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, her father's younger brother, which proved to be problematic.

When Victoria's father died on January 23, 1820, the future queen was barely eight months old. And when her grandfather, George III, died just a week later, the tot became third in line to the throne, which reportedly enraged Ernest Augustus. Fearing for the safety of her daughter, Victoria's mother chose to raise her away from the influence of Prince Edward's family—especially once rumors began to circulate that Ernest Augustus had designs on murdering his young niece to ensure that he, not she, would ascend to the throne. Whether or not there was any veracity to those rumors didn’t matter; on June 20, 1837, following the death of her uncle William, Duke of Clarence, 18-year-old Princess Alexandrina Victoria became Queen Victoria.

2. Queen Victoria was the first sovereign to rule from Buckingham Palace.

In 1761, Buckingham Palace was not yet a palace—it was simply a house. King George III bought the property for his wife, Queen Charlotte, to use as a family home. But when King George IV took over, he had bigger aspirations and decided to create an extravagant palace; costs ballooned to £500,000 (or more than $65 million in today's dollars). George IV died in 1830, however, which meant he never even got to live in the palace. When Queen Victoria took over in 1837, she became the first sovereign to rule from Buckingham Palace. In 1851, she was the first recorded royal to appear on Buckingham Palace’s balcony, a tradition the royal family still continues today.

3. Queen Victoria survived eight assassination attempts.

Queen Victoria sitting in a carriage car
Culture Club/Getty Images

Being in the public eye has its advantages and disadvantages, and for Queen Victoria that meant being the frequent target of assassination attempts. Over the course of her reign, she survived eight of them. In 1940, Edward Oxford shot at Victoria and Prince Albert while they rode in a carriage; Victoria, who was pregnant at the time, was thankfully not harmed. (Oxford was later judged to be insane.)

Two years later, John Francis attempted to shoot the couple not once, but twice—two days in a row. Again, neither was harmed. Just five weeks later, a teenager named John William Bean fired a pistol loaded with pieces of tobacco pipe at the Queen. In 1850, she was eventually injured when ex-soldier Robert Pate hit her over the head with an iron-tipped cane while she spent time in the courtyard of her home. Pate gave her a black eye and a scar that lasted for a long time.

4. Queen Victoria first met Prince Albert on her 17th birthday.

In May 1836, on Victoria’s 17th birthday, Prince Albert and the future queen—who were first cousins—met for the first time when Albert and his brother visited Kensington Palace with their Uncle Leopold. (Albert would turn 17 years old in August.) “He is extremely handsome,” Victoria wrote of the prince in her diary. But it would take almost four more years for the couple to tie the knot. And because royal rule stipulated that a reigning monarch could not be proposed to, Victoria had to be the one to pop the question. On October 15, 1839, Victoria proposed to Albert, who happily accepted. The couple married on February 10, 1840.

5. Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding dress.

Queen Victoria of England - Her Majesty 's wedding to Prince Albert in 1840
Culture Club/Getty Images

If you've ever wondered where the white wedding dress tradition originated, look no further than Queen Victoria. In 1840, Victoria wore an off-the-shoulder white satin gown covered in lace when she married Prince Albert. Though Victoria wasn’t the first royal to wear a white wedding dress—Mary, Queen of Scots wore white, too—wearing white became a status symbol following Victoria and Albert's nuptials.

6. Queen Victoria ensured that no other bride could replicate her wedding dress.

After Victoria’s wedding, she had the pattern to her dress destroyed so that no one could duplicate it.

7. Queen Victoria had nine children, but had some harsh opinions of motherhood.

Queen Victoria And Prince Albert With Five Of Their Children in 1846
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Nine kids is a lot, and even though the Queen had a lot of help, she at times seemed indifferent to motherhood. In personal letters, she wrote about her children, mainly about their looks. She once wrote: “I am no admirer of babies generally—there are exceptions—for instance (your sisters) Alice, and Beatrice were very pretty from the very first—yourself also-rather so—Arthur too ... Bertie and Leopold—too frightful. Little girls are always prettier and nicer.” She also said “an ugly baby is a very nasty object.”

8. Queen Victoria was fascinated by Jack the Ripper.

In 1888, the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper began brutally murdering women—mainly prostitutes—in London’s Whitechapel district. Victoria received a petition signed by the women of East London urging the Queen’s “servants in authority” to “close bad houses” a.k.a. brothels, and passed it to the Home Office. When final victim Mary Jane Kelly was killed, Victoria contacted the Prime Minister and urged that better detectives be employed.

9. Queen Victoria’s grandson was suspected of being Jack the Ripper.

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, c1890s
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

To this day, no one knows for sure who Jack the Ripper was. However, some people have theorized that Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor was the killer. In the 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, author Stephen Knight wrote about how Victoria’s grandson might’ve contracted syphilis from a prostitute, which turned him mad. Another theory suggests the grandson secretly married a Catholic commoner and fathered a child, and it was the royal family who murdered the women to cover up the family secret. (Yes, that one seems a little far-fetched.)

10. Queen Victoria served as her grandson’s alibi.

Queen Victoria gave her grandson an alibi in her journal, thus exonerating him from accusations of being one of the world’s most famous serial killers.

11. Queen Victoria is the second longest-reigning British Monarch.

For 51 years, Victoria held the title of longest-reigning British monarch. But on September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II took over the reins, so to speak, and bumped Victoria to second place. Victoria ruled for 63 years, 7 months, and 3 days; Elizabeth—who is Victoria’s great, great granddaughter—has ruled for almost 68 years.

12. Queen Victoria spent 40 years mourning the death of Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria with her great-granchildren at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, 1900
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

A couple of years before his death, Prince Albert began experiencing stomach cramps, and he almost died in a horse-drawn carriage accident. He told Victoria his days were numbered: “I am sure if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity for life,” he said.

On December 14, 1861, Albert succumbed to typhoid fever, though some people believe that stomach cancer and Crohn’s disease were the more likely culprits. Victoria blamed their son Edward for Albert’s death, as Albert was worried about a scandalous affair Edward was said to be having with an actress in Ireland.

Victoria lived for another 40 years and mourned Albert’s death the rest of her life by wearing black, becoming a recluse (she was often referred to as the Widow of Windsor), and keeping Albert’s rooms just the way he had left them.

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