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.
- Blue teal/black ink-back set of 50 cards. With “Wills’s Cigarettes” clause. I have a full set;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting no brand. No “Wills Cigarettes” clause;
- Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. No “Wills Cigarettes” clause;
- Black 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;
- Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Vice Regal Mixture brand of tobacco. No “Wills Cigarettes” clause;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Vice Regal Mixture brand of tobacco. With the “Wills Cigarettes” clause;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Havelock brand of tobacco. No “Wills’s Cigarette” clause;
- Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Havelock brand of Tobacco. No “Wills’s Cigarette” clause;
- Black ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause;
- Black 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:
- BAT Eagle Bird Cigarettes cards;
- Ogdens Tabs set of cards;
- some other 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. No “Wills’s Cigarettes” clause. I am assuming this is a Wills set only because the numbers and images match the ones below.
- a set of 50-card Wills’s Aviation Series on the back with nothing written on the sides. With “Wills’s Cigarettes” clause;
- a set of 50-card Wills’s Aviation Series on the back with nothing written on the sides. Has “W.D. & W.O. Wills” at the base of the card on the back. With “Wills’s Cigarettes” clause.
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 wet 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.