Aviation Tobacco Cards – updated


Louis Blériot’s Bleriot XI monoplane. Wills’s Aviation Card No. 38., 1910 card series.

Wills’s Aviation Tobacco Cards: A Beginner’s Guide

If you have read my introduction, I am basing my history of the Pioneers of Aviation around a set of tobacco trading cards issued in 1910.

Of course… I am also adding in stories, as I see fit, concerning the myths of flight not related to these cards. Though… the card set does include a myth or two… so some myths will be looked at through the cards.

I collect Wills’s Cigarettes Aviation tobacco cards – the 1910 series of 50 cards, of which I have a complete set in pretty decent condition. I’ve been doing so for about a year now. Not a long time, to be sure, but I have learned a few things that I can at least pass along to the new collector.

For the uninitiated W.D.& H.O Wills was a British tobacco importer and cigarette manufacturer formed in Bristol, England, and was a founding company of The Imperial Tobacco Co.

In the 1800s, cigarettes were available in paper packages and were susceptible to crushing. To combat that, a piece of cardboard was inserted inside the package to lend it strength. In the middle half of that century, an enterprising tobacco company then realized that advertising could be printed on the insert, and thus the tobacco trading card was born. Soon, in order to grab the paying customers’ interest, pictures/images replaced the ads. I’ll be honest, this is a very general origin of the tobacco card. Other sites like www.franklyncards.com offer a decent rendering of the history behind it.

An early Wills’s set from 1894 includes: its 50 card Soldiers & Sailors set, available with both a blue and a grey back. The blue back set is valued at $3000 while grey back issue is valued $200 more at $3,200.

With a budding interest in everything old—and having recently written an article on the centenary of Canada’s first flying airplane or aerodrone (as Alexander Graham Bell liked to call his planes) in 1909—I discovered that Wills had issued a card of that plane—the Silver Dart in 1910. Snapping it up on E-bay, and perhaps paying too much for it, I quickly learned that the tobacco giant had issued a 50-card set in 1910. I bought a very nice set for about $11. Apparently, I did NOT over-pay for this well-preserved set.

Each of the 50 cards has a nice piece of line art in pastel colors on the obverse, denoting either a particular aviation concept, craft or a particular event and featured aeroplanes (sic), balloons, zeppelins, dirigibles, gliders, parachutes, and pilot. The front also contained the “Wills Cigarettes” clause on the art.

The reverse contained a brief +/- 50-word description of the scene depicted plus background information and history where applicable.

Now remember… aviation, especially heavier than air flight, was still in its infancy and the majority of the world had still never even seen one, so the pictures on these cards must have seemed quite fantastic and were probably highly sought after even then.

So, after further examination into these cards, I learned of the Wills’s Australia issue Aviation series—a set of 75 cards, and a second set of 85 cards! The collector in me screamed Yippee! More to collect! The wife beside me just screamed and slapped me in the back of my head.

The first 50 cards are generally the same – see below for clarification.

So I purchased 67 more aviation tobacco cards from that era.

Now you’d think that would be it, right? A British 50-card series, and the Aussie 75-card and 85-card series. Nope. Things are never that easy—especially for a collector.

An internet purchase of miscellaneous aviation cards netted me a conundrum. That purchase of 67 aviation cards consisted of mostly Wills’s cards and 11 British-American Tobacco (B.A.T.) cards. The kicker is that the B.A.T. cards use the same obverse art as the Wills’s 50-card set. The reverse of the B.A.T. cards simply has a large logo for the Eagle Bird Cigarettes brand.

While the Will’s cards purchased that day consisted of five cards from the Aussie 85-card series, the remaining 51 were from the 75-card series (and 11 B.A.T cards). Since no duplicates were purchased, you’d think I would only need 24 more for a full set. So did I. What was I thinking? Actually, what was Wills’s Cigarettes thinking?

The Australian 75-card set was (at least from what I have so far discovered—and you are welcome to write to me and add to my knowledge)—manufactured in a number of differing varieties.

In fact, many of the sets have “Wills’s Cigarettes.” emblazoned over the art, while others do not. This is known as the ‘Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause.

  • Wills 50 TealBlue teal/black ink-back set of 50 cards. With “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause. I have a full set;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-LIFmI2qRm45ej.jpgBlack ink-back set of 75 cards denoting no brand. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause;
  • Capstan 75 Green No WillsGreen ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause;
  • Capstan 75 BlackBlack ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. With the “Wills Cigarettes.” clause. I have a full set of this;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-Zh2b4sVm5f.jpgGreen ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Vice Regal Mixture brand of tobacco. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause;
  • Vice Regal 75 BlackBlack ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Vice Regal Mixture brand of tobacco. With the “Wills Cigarettes.” clause;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-E3JXhI1Xj77WMzJB.jpgBlack ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Havelock brand of tobacco. No “Wills’s Cigarette.” clause;
  • [No Example in MY Collection] Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Havelock brand of tobacco. No “Wills’s Cigarette.” clause. I’m told it exists;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-PcQVyi0ifbBiV.jpgBlack ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-zWheRXo0cb4JOY.jpgBlack ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Vice Regal brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause.

If there is a Capstan Navy Cut and Vice Regal 85-card set, is there one for Havelock?

And, just so you know, the green ink-back cards pictures sit upside down relative to their black ink-back cousins—for both the Capstan Navy Cut and Vice Regal brands. Which is the correct way? The black ink backs match the teal backs of the original 50-card Wills’s UK set, so I assume the green-back way is the variation.

Finally, I recently took a nice close look at my original purchase of the 50-card Wills’s set from 1910, I noticed a curious anomaly. While the backs of the cards are in a teal ink, one of the cards appears to be in black ink. Yes, there are color variations in print runs all the time… and then I removed the card from its plastic card holder and got a good look at it under strong, natural light (the sun). It wasn’t black. It was just a darker teal. One mystery solved and one less collection I need to gather. The back of my head thanks me.

These Australian issues appear to have been released—at least according to a dated notation on the back of one of the cards—sometime after or during January 1911. So I can say that the 75-card series was issued in 1911, with the possibility of the 85-card set also issued at around that time.

Other tobacco company cards include:

  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-tGJoYcxGFC0t.jpgBAT Eagle Bird Cigarettes cards – images seem weaker than the standard Wills’s sets, plus the darker paper makes this a poor set in my eyes;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-sfUESC30lnc.jpgOgdens Tabs set of cards – the Tabs series that is similar in scope to the BAT Eagle cards immediately above; imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-XndeEMS4LQOgnM
  • Ogden Tab Cigarettes – In case you are a completest, a set of Ogden’s Tab Cigarettes cards contained within its “C Series” and “D Series”  – a very few cards are there depicting balloons. The images are black and white photos, however, so the picture quality is sharp, as is the solid quality of the white paper. ;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-L4sLPWRjOoE0Gk.jpgAnother 50-card Wills’s set called Aviation Series on the back with a note written on the back right side: “From all tobacco dealers at 25 ¢ each.” Has a “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause.
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-izJnJFbtmM.jpga set of 50-card Wills’s Aviation Series on the back with nothing written on the sides. With “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause;
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-FnNtvWfOMoxUlMG.jpga set of 50-card Wills’s Aviation Series on the back with nothing written on the sides. Has “W.D. & W.O. Will’s” (different spelling!!!) at the base of the card on the back. With “Wills’s Cigarettes” clause on front.
  • imgonline-com-ua-twotoone-mfuZpgfO7Wg.jpga set of 50-card no-name Aviation Series… nothing on the back, no identification on the front… just a description of the card. It does have images not seen in the other series, however. I am unsure where this series originated.

Excluding the Ogden’s Tab Cigarettes featuring black and white photos, if you were just to collect the 1910-12(?) series of cards featuring drawn images, there are a confirmed 15 series, and that other one I have no cards for (I’m assuming it exists)…

As a collector, it’s just more to collect. But it’s confusing. There are, of course, interesting aviation-related cards within other sets – a smattering of one or two, so you can choose to purchase the whole set or just the ones you want. I have a blank-backed card about a balloon race, one from Pascal’s Specialties Pine Lozenges showing an image of a Boy Scout building a wooden replica of a plane from 1910; various ones from Gallaher Ltd‘s Great War Series (I & II); various black and white photos of balloons from Series C and Series D of Ogden’s Tab Cigarettes – different from the ones mentioned in the last bullet list… and there are more out there that I was unable to purchase because of cost or because someone out bid me.

And here I am encouraging more of you to get involved and become my competition.  And I do so gladly because it’s fun and because it’s a wonderful peek into the history of aviation.

I have, as of December 2016 finished posting all 50 images of the 50-card Wills’s original set, providing all the information I could dig up on the subject… because try as they might, those backs of the card just did not provide enough information except to whet one’s appetite.

For 2017, I will post my write-ups on the 75, and then 85-card series… picking up at Card #51… everything before that is the same as the original 1910 issue.

By the way… the nice combined images were done on a web program at www.IMGonline.com.ua – very easy to figure out!

6 Responses to Aviation Tobacco Cards – updated

  1. Martin Pratley says:

    Thank you. I have been collecting pre 1953 aviation aircrew wings & badges since I was in shorts. My grandmothers house backed onto Castle Bromwich airfield where they assembled & tested Spitfires during WW2. Know live in Ausralia & recently came across a set of 1910/11 vice regal set of 75 aviation cards. I have thoroughly enjoyed your article. Like all things, the more information you have the more interesting it becomes. Regards Martin

    • mreman47 says:

      Hi Martin! Thanks for writing in!
      So – do you have a complete set of the Vice Regals? Do they have black or green color ink on the back? The green will be a pretty obvious green!
      Australia appears the the place for the 75 and 85 card sets.
      If you look at the frontspiece of the blog, up at the top, there is a page called Tobacco cards where I think I mention all the set variations of THIS particular topic.
      As for collecting the wings and badges – holy smokes! That sounds like a decent hobby, too! How do you store them? My stuff sit in plastic card holders in a huge binder – and I can tell I’ll have to start a second one soon.
      Again, thanks for writing in… and if you want to share YOUR hobby here, we can talk.

  2. Rob Jephcott says:

    Andrew, I am a card collector from the UK now living in Canada and specialising in Aviation cards. Your article on Wills is very interesting. My understanding is that the subjects of cards 1 to 50 in each of the 50, 75 and 85 card series are the same. I’m not sure whether you are aware (as I don’t see it mentioned in the article) that in the 75 card series there are two versions of each of numbers 63, 69, 73 and 74. I have managed to collect the original 50 card set, numbers 51 to 75 (including both versions of the above four cards) of the 75 card set and numbers 77 to 84 of the 85 card set. Numbers 76 and 85 of that 85 card set have eluded me for a number of years. If you have those two cards and you are able to send me photos of them, I would be very grateful. If I can provide you with any additional information please let me know. Thanks. Rob

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