Was There Ever Really a Junk Wax Era?

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Hobby enthusiasts generally agree that the so-called Junk Wax Era occurred from about 1987 to 1994, give or take a year or two.  During this time period, card manufacturers tended to mass produce cards to meet strong collector demand.  Collectors, in turn, protected and saved their cards at high rates – certainly at much higher rates than the generation of collectorsthomas-frank-1990-score-traded-86t who grew up during the 1950s and 1960s.  For these reasons, here we are over two decades removed from the Junk Wax Era and boxes and boxes of cards from most sets of the day can still be found easily and cheaply.

Furthermore, many present-day collectors are not intrigued by Junk Wax because sets form the era (with a few notable exceptions) did not feature serial numbered cards, relic cards, nor autographed cards.  For the most part, when opening up Junk Wax packs, only base cards and a few simple inserts are to be found.  There is just not enough “Wow Factor” for the many collectors who instead choose to spend their time and financial resources pursuing cards from different eras.  Such collectors want “hits” when they rip into a contemporary box of cards; duplicate base cards of some journeyman reliever (a common occurrence when opening up packs from the Junk Wax Era) will just not do in the minds of many collectors.  I started collecting cards during the late 1980s, and as such, much of the collection of my youth was of the Junk Wax variety.  I loved these cards as a kid, and look forward to collecting these cards again (albeit in smaller quantities) now that I have returned to the hobby.

I dislike the term “Junk Wax” for several reasons and wish we collectors would stop using the term so ubiquitously.  But before I go into more detail about these reasons, I first want to point out that I totally get it if collectors do not want to chase after cards from the late 1980s and early 1990sAs I mentioned above, we all have limited resources and should collect what we want.  I myself really like late 1990s serial numbered insert cards.  I’d rather buy a box of 2016 Topps Stadium Club over a box of 1992 Topps Stadium Club any day of the week.  I’d rather have a serial-numbered 2015 Topps Chrome Kris Bryant parallel rookie card over a 1987 Topps Greg Maddux rookie card.  So no, my dislike of the pejorative term “Junk Wax” is not the result of some blind nostalgia that I have for the days and cards of my youth.  Cards from other eras are often more interesting and valuable than their Junk Wax Era counterparts. 

Instead, my misgivings of the term Junk Wax** stems from the unflattering and imprecise picture that it places on the hobby.  We collectors should do our best to promote the sports card industry; labeling a significant chunk of the hobby’s history as the Junk Wax Era is not a good way to bring kids and novice collectors into the hobby.  The phrase Junk Wax makes it seem like cards are pieces of scrap garbage, not collectables that should be taken seriously as works of art.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recognize the overproduction problems of the era or that critiquing card sets is somehow bad – constructive criticism often leads to improvements down the road.  But labeling something as junk suggests that an object has neither monetary value nor any intrinsic value.  We all know that cards from this era are, relatively speaking, cheap.  But for many individuals, and I am one of them, the sense of attachment to this era is very strong.  As such, generalizing cards of the era as Junk Wax is a disservice to both current collectors and potential collectors as well.

Another reason why I do not like using the term Junk Wax is because it implies that the cards themselves were of no quality.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  There are tons of examples – 1991 Upper Deck Baseball, 1994 Pinnacle baseball, 1990/91 Skybox basketball, 1993 Playoff football, etc. – that I think are beautifully designed and well madeOr take the photography that was used for early 1990s Topps Stadium Club and Fleer Ultra releases – it is on par with any photography that is utilzed in present-day cards.  Additionally, I find that the card backs featured in many of the sets of the Junk Wax Era to be extremely well done and informative.  The next time you get a relic or autograph card from a modern release, turn the card over and see if any player information is provided.  More times than not, a player write-up is not to be found.  My point here isn’t so much to criticize modern cards (a lot of great sets have been produced over the last few years), but rather to emphasize that 25 year-old cards bring something unique to the table as well.  Yes, cards from the era were overproduced, but production runs are only one way to measure the quality of a set of cards.  This truth is something that I wish more collectors kept in mind.  We should not conflate monetary value with quality.

I hope that I do not sound too sanctimonious.  I’ll be the first to admit that sets such as 1991 Fleer football are nothing to write home about.  This set features a poor design and uses flimsy cardstock.  It just doesn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities.  These are the reasons why I wouldn’t want a box to rip open, not simply because the set was overproduced.  So if you ever find yourself in a discussion about the Junk Wax Era, I challenge you to come up with reasons other than “overproduction” as to why this time period should be known as the Junk Wax Era.  If you haven’t thought about this era is some time, give it a second chance – quality sets and cards can be found all over the place.  In fact, it doesn’t take much looking around the internet to see that late 1980s cards actually have a healthy following in the collecting community.  This is great to see.  Perhaps the term “Junk Wax” says more about us and what we value, rather than the quality of the cards themselves.  It’s lazy thinking to simply view an overproduced set as being tantamount to a “junk set.”  The hobby deserves better. 

Ok, rant is over.  I’ve got several videos planned in the upcoming days, so be on the lookout.

**I use the term “Junk Wax” throughout this article for consistency, but will definitely limit its use on LinguaSportsCards.com going forward.

Word of the Day

archetype – the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies; prototype; a perfect example; he is the archetype of a successful businessman; an archetype of the modern family; an archetypal businessman; an archetypal American town

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