This beautiful set of collectible cigarette cards depicts fashionable young women, dressed in 1920s flapper garb, as butterflies. The cards had scientific pretensions, featuring the full names of the butterflies on the front, along with the habitat and habits of the butterfly in question on the back. The concept slyly offered male smokers the chance to collect women, while pretending an interest in natural history. 

Cigarette cards, packaged with tobacco between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, featured a range of topics. The cards were often ostensibly informational, flavored with a dash of salaciousness (“Savage and Semi-Barbarous Chiefs and Rulers” is one example of this kind of approach). To enhance collectability, manufacturers often announced that the set would feature a finite number of cards (“50 Vehicles of the World” or, in this case, “A Series of 50 Butterflies”). Duke University’s digital collections contain many such sets to browse, including one called Floral Beauties, which offers images of women along with flowers; the people behind “50 Butterflies” had precedent.

As for the association of flappers with butterflies, it was not confined to this set of cigarette cards. Did artist J.C. Leyendecker take a cue from this set when he drew this beautiful cover of LIFE magazine, which dates to the same era? Or artist Wladyslaw Benda, who put another flapper butterfly on the magazine’s cover in 1923? Or did the anonymous artists who worked for the companies that packaged these cards with their cigarettes see the LIFE covers and get inspired? Whether or not we can draw a concrete connection, it's clear that artists of the 1920s found the flapper-butterfly analogy too bewitching to resist. 

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library,The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public domain 

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public domain  

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public domain  

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public domain  

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public domain   

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public domain