". . . how dismal is progress without publicity…individuals love more to bask in the sunshine of popularity than they do to improve in some obscure intellectual shade. Merit is no object, conspicuity all."
—Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)
The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection of Printed Ephemera in the Department of Drawings and Prints includes over six thousand "tobacco cards" from the late 1800s that depict actresses of various levels of celebrity. Twenty-seven of these cards—which were inserted in cigarette packs and intended to be collected and traded much like baseball cards—advertise Daisy Murdoch, a mid-level burlesque actress of the 1880s. She constituted what we might call a "one-hit wonder" today; she was recognized by the public almost solely for her role as Cupid in the Bijou Opera Company's traveling production of Orpheus and Eurydice (1883–85). Murdoch's cards present a clear example of the dissemination of imagery and commodification of celebrity during this unique moment in print culture and theater history.
Actress trade cards were an organic outgrowth of a photographic fad frequently called "cartomania" or "cardomania." Mass-produced celebrity portraits were used both to confirm and bestow celebrity on a national scale. Consequently, hundreds of millions of cabinet-card and carte-de-visite studio photographs—depicting authors, artists, lecturers, preachers, politicians, and actors—were published, distributed, and collected each year.
Established household names and fame-seekers alike sat for portraits. In 1882, in New York City alone, almost two million dollars' worth of celebrity prints were purchased by the public. Though only a dozen publishers actually distributed the images, over six hundred American photographers contributed to the blossoming trade.
In turn, these easily distributed celebrity photographs paved the way for celebrity image novelties such as the tobacco card. The addition of a tobacco brand name onto the original image transformed the photographic portrait into an advertisement, the logical next step in perpetuating and solidifying celebrity on a national scale. Unlike the majority of tobacco cards, which were issued as commercial color lithographs, the majority of actress cards remained albumen photographs mounted on a cardboard backing, similar to the original cabinet card or carte-de-visite.
In 1883, Murdoch stepped into Antonio E. Moreno's photographic studio on 14th Street in New York City in order to pose for a set of theater portraits dressed in the costume of Cupid. (See an early print bearing Moreno's name on the University of South Carolina's Broadway Photographs website.) Less than a year after the portrait session, we see Moreno's images of Murdoch as Cupid utilized as advertising by a wide number of tobacco companies, including "Yum Yum" Tobacco, Conqueror Cigarettes, and Duke Cigarettes.
Another series by an unknown photographer (potentially Benjamin J. Falk) also depicts Daisy in a series of poses as Cupid. One image was co-opted by a number of tobacco companies, including Virginia Brights, Cross Cut, Cameo, Old Judge, and Conqueror.
While the image remains the same, the tobacco brands change from card to card. The spelling of Daisy Murdoch's name is also prone to variation, a detail that underscores the extent to which collectors valued the image of Cupid more than that of Daisy Murdoch the actress.
The original photographers of both sets of portraits were never credited on the cigarette cards. It is even unclear as to whether the photographers sold the rights to the tobacco companies or, since copyright laws were not yet well established or enforced, if the companies simply used the images without consent.
Daisy Murdoch died of tuberculosis at the age of 18, cutting her time in the limelight unnaturally short. Rather than becoming a well-known actress, she became known only as "Cupid," the image by which the public knew her. The New York Times obituary of August 9, 1886, reported that Murdoch's coffin was decorated with a large number of cupid-themed floral arrangements, "an elaborate floral piece of white with the word 'Cupid' in dark flowers," and a "heart of daisies, pierced by an arrow." Consumption took Murdoch off of the national stage, but tobacco cards cemented her as "Cupid" in the public's memory.