“The World’s Great Animals Come to Life”: Safari Cards, 1976 – 1986

Exhibit / April 10, 2018

Object Name: Safari Cards
Maker and Year: Editions Rencontre, 1976; Margrace Corp., 1980
Object Type: Collectible animal information cards
Video/Image SourceThe Museum of Classic Chicago Television/Garage Sale Finds
Description: (Michael Grasso)

Safari Cards were an English translation of a set of collectible zoological information facts first devised and published in Switzerland. Original publisher Éditions Rencontre in Lausanne, Switzerland specialized in subscription encyclopedias and other educational toys in the 1950s and ’60s. Intended explicitly from the very beginning to democratize learning and bring the classics of French-language literature to the public at an inexpensive cost, one of Rencontre’s other collectible marketing schemes was L’Encyclopédie du monde actuel, a set of fact cards that could be assembled by the child collector to form a full set of encyclopedias. The collectible book series was a popular concept in the postwar Francophone world.

Earlier than this, the book club, a long-standing model on both sides of the Atlantic, was a way for families who had not inherited massive libraries to assemble and collect an impressive display of erudition in the home, whether it was the classics of the Western canon, new popular fiction (sometimes given a lease on inclusion in the canon thanks to massive success, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind), or an authoritative encyclopedia that could be used by the children in the family for school reports.

In 1976, American publishers Margrace Corporation of Middlesex, New Jersey optioned and translated the French language Safari Cards and used TV ads like the one above (from 1981) to entice children and their parents to subscribe for an educational experience. The cards themselves were compulsively collectible and sortable, and contained a real wealth of information. As the khaki-clad pitchman in the TV ad mentions, “These symbols let you file your cards the way naturalists do.” The cards’ headers were color-coded by climate and habitat, with a world map showing their geographical spread, and supplemented with symbols noting their taxonomic information (admittedly useless without the collectible card featuring the symbols’ key and legend). The backs of the cards featured a fairly substantial explanation of the animals’ behavior, habitat, and other fun facts. (Sample cards can be seen here.) In an era well before Wikipedia, in a time when the closest encyclopedia was likely at the local public library, Safari Cards were a boon to promising naturalists.

Safari Cards followed a marketing model familiar to most consumers in the 1970s and 1980s: advertisements in wide-circulating print magazines (like TV Guide) or through long-form television commercials, and a subscription model where your first set of orders would be close to free, after which the costs would kick in. These sorts of offers ran parallel with other marketing schemes. The collectible card set model was thoroughly milked by Margrace: they also offered a series titled “Story of America” with a practically identical visual design to Safari Cards. Margrace also branched out into comic-book versions of classic literature later in the 1980s, a quaint and old-fashioned offering considering the golden years of lines like Classics Illustrated had petered out in the early ’70s.

Throughout the rest of the 1980s, other publishers’ attempts to get on the buy now/pay later gravy train abounded: full-color encyclopedias for children were often sold in grocery stores, either volume by volume in the supermarket itself or by picking up a discounted first volume at the market and mail-ordering the rest. As seen in the mission statement of Editions Rencontre, these inexpensive offers appealed to working- and middle-class families seeking to provide an educational edge for their children. But they were also at their root exploitative, locking those same paycheck-to-paycheck families into schemes where “cancel at any time” might be much easier said than done. Given the recent return of a vogue for subscription boxes, it seems like this model is alive and well in the 21st century, expanding its tendrils into an upper-middle class desirous of curated experiences in the form of monthly treats delivered to its door.

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