Topps Rub-Offs, Hasbro Rub-Ons, & Trans-Action

Borderline infringing Letraset's patent on dry rub-down transfers, for many years Hasbro were able to promote their own less-sophisticated technology with relative impunity. Essentially a method of smearing surfaces with smudges of pre-printed ink, these had some success in the US for several years, & now they have their own naive retro charm.

The Topps confectionery company first used this technique way back in 1961, & it has to be said in their favour that they beat Letraset to the use of colour in children's dry rub-down transfers by four years (although of course colour waterslide transfers had been available for well over a century before that).

Topps & Hasbro had fun with naming their transfer technology, referring to it on various occasions as "Rub-Ons", "Rub-Offs" or "Rub-Downs", but the different names don't reflect any changes in the transfer process.

In the UK, a company called Trans-Action had a brief fling with patent infringement around 1975, using much the same idea.

The difference between these competing transfer technologies can be summed up like this:

You may be here because you're reading your way through the "What are Transfers?" article — in which case, don't worry; links will be provided at the end of each page to help you carry on. But meanwhile, there's an unavoidable digression…

A couple of years ago, I said:

This page is just intended to quickly outline this alternative to Letraset's dry rub-down technology, but if there is enough interest, I can expand it with many more examples; there is easily enough material available for a full, detailed article.

It turns out there WAS quite a bit of interest, so this single page on alternative transfer technologies has had to grow into ten pages — & for convenience, some Letraset transfers have had to be included in this section as well.

Fans of Peter Archer (creator of the original Action Transfers) will definitely want to read to the end!

Let's start our look at these non-Letraset transfers with an overview of Topps baseball cards…

Topps Baseball Tattoos & Magic Rub-Offs

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A pair of Topps 1966 Baseball Magic Rub-Offs. Firstly the view from above, through the carrier paper; then the view from below, which naturally is more detailed & colourful, but also reversed. The rub-offs came in packets with a nasty stick of chewing gum; the idea was that the gum was the product, & the rub-offs merely free gifts, but I don't suppose anyone took these supposed priorities very seriously.

Countless chewing gum series other than baseball also came with tattoos, from Topps & from other companies, but as far as I've been able to discover only the Topps baseball series ever used Hasbro-style transfers — which is why we're discussing them here.

Topps produced three series of Hasbro-style Baseball Magic Rub-Offs, & three of temporary tattoos (skin transfers). By 1969, however, they had rubbed up against Letraset.


The wording is identical on all three of the years of interest — 1961, 1965 & 1966:


1961 Baseball Magic Rub-Off — back


The process involved is printing on waxed paper, which means that the printing ink doesn't stay on the paper if you rub it; it comes off. Messy!

The 1966 series have a nice dynamic range for cheap low resolution printing; they must have had a very skilled print designer who really understood what the presses could manage.

They are also the most sophisticated in terms of palette, with the 1961 & 1965 series just using very straightforward spot colours.

Note also that the 1961 series feature the artwork of several famous E.C. Comics artists, including Jack Davis (see below).

Topps Magic Rub-Offs would not have been a true rival to Letraset's dry rub-down technology, but it makes clear certain references in John Chudley's book "Letraset: a Lesson in Growth", & I can see why Letraset reacted quickly to the possibility of competition by establishing a US office.

By 1969, though, Letraset & Topps had come to an arrangement, as can be seen by the 1969 Baseball series covered on the next page, & were soon co-producing product lines such as the Topps Magic Rub-Offs version of Mini-Toons (which were simply Letraset Mini-Toons repackaged by Topps) & Topps Speed Wheels (which had original Letraset transfers).

A quick review of the Topps Baseball transfers, year by year:


1960 Baseball Tattoo Bubble Gum — front & back of wrapper, which enclosed a package containing gum & cards


1961 Baseball Magic Rub-Off — Artwork by Jack Davis


1964 Baseball Photo Tatoo (sic) — wrapper front


1964 Baseball Photo Tatoo (sic) — wrapper backs


1965 Baseball Magic Rub-Off — players


1965 Baseball Magic Rub-Off — pennants

(1966 Baseball Magic Rub-Off: shown at the top of this page. 1969 Baseball, printed by Letraset: shown on the next page.)


1971 Baseball Tattoos — sheets 5, 6, 10 & 11 of 16


1971 Baseball Tattoos — M. Stottlemyre, as printed (right) & in reverse (left)

• Next Page: Topps 1969 Baseball Magic Rub-Offs →

…Or, for those who prefer not to simply follow the "Next Page" links:

Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives