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 (and 1911 and 1912).
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 75-card series appear to have been issued in 1911, and because two of the 85-card series make mention of King George V visiting Weymouth to attend a naval practice in 1912 – and that was around March 11, 1912, I have to assume that the 85-card series was issued after that date, but only within that year. I only figured that out on January 21, 2018.
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.
As you will see from the images below… just because you have all of the numbers of the 75- or 85-card series, it’s not a complete set unless they are all from the same tobacco company!
There are supposed to be two versions of printing on the Capstan green-back and Vice Regal green-back 75-series cards: matte backs, and; glazed backs – which could just be the same printing press with one accidentally done with the glaze unnecessarily applied. In my opinion, these are two different types of cards from the same series, and thus, for the collector, there two different types of sets to collect in the 75-card green-back Capstan and two different types of sets to collect in the 75-card green-back Vice Regal sets.
The glaze on the reverse is obvious. And, for whatever reason, of the ONLY 40 cards or so I have from the two different types of sets of the 75-card green-backs, MORE than half of them are glazed. That just may be dumb luck on my part, and not a true indicator of which type of back is more rare.
Just more to collect, people.
The three Green back 75-card series listed below have the front images slightly redrawn and thus slightly different from the Black back series. A perfect example of that can be seen in the Vice Regal Black and Green back images below.
- Blue teal ink-back set of 50 cards. Great Britain. With “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause. I have a full set – 1910;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting no brand, a so-called “Anonymous issue”. Australia issued. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause – 1911;
- Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause. There are two versions implying another sub-set of cards for collectors: matte backs; glazed backs. Australia issued – 1911;
- 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. Only has a matte back finish. Australia issued – 1911;
- Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Vice Regal Mixture brand of tobacco. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause. There are two versions, however of the cards – meaning a subset of this is also possible: matte backs; glazed backs. Australia issued – 1911;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Vice Regal Mixture brand of tobacco. With the “Wills Cigarettes.” clause. Only has a matte finish on back. Australia issued – 1911;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Havelock brand of tobacco. No “Wills’s Cigarette.” clause. Only has a matte finish on back. Australia issued – 1911;
- Green ink-back set of 75 cards denoting the Havelock brand of tobacco. No “Wills’s Cigarette.” clause. This is the only example I have, purchasing it in September of 2017. Only one type of ink on back: matte. No glazed back cards were issued, according to my sources. Australia issued – 1911;
- Black ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause. Only matte back finish. Australia issued – early 1912;
- Black ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Vice Regal brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause. Only matte back finish. Australia issued – early 1912.
If there is a Capstan Navy Cut and Vice Regal 85-card set, is there one for Havelock? And… are there Green-back versions for Capstan, Vice Regal or Havelock? No, and no.
There’s is no Havelock 85-card series, and no green-backed 85-card series (matte or glazed). Period.
And, just so you know, the 75-card green ink-back cards pictures sit upside down relative to their black ink-back cousins—for both the Capstan Navy Cut, Havelock 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. But since they are all like that, you can NOT call them an error. It’s just the way they were all made.
These Australian issues (75- and 85-card series) 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 early 1911, with the possibility of the 85-card set also issued in 1911, but much later in the year.
Other tobacco company cards include:
- BAT 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;
- Ogdens Tabs set of cards – the Tabs series that is similar in scope to the BAT Eagle cards immediately above;
- 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 (and glazed, both sides), however, so the picture quality is sharp, as is the solid quality of the white paper;
- Another 50-card Wills’s set called Aviation Series on the back with a note written on the back right side called an “Album clause”: “From all tobacco dealers at 25 ¢ each.” Has a “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause;
- a set of 50-card Wills’s Aviation Series on the back with nothing written on the sides. With “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause. No “Album clause” on sides;
- a 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. Also states at top of card back: “Series of 50”. With “Wills’s Cigarettes” clause on front. No “Album clause” on sides;
- a 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. No “Album clause” on sides.
There may also be another 50-card no-name Aviation Series set that is called Series from ITC (Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited), known as C44. It has No “Wills’s Cigarette” clause, but has an “Album clause”.
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 18 series. This includes the matte and glazed reverses/backs of green-back cards in the Capstan and Vice Regal 75-card series.
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 (As of September 24, 2017, I have actually finish writing, but not published write-ups on the cards in the 75-card series-which actually has four additional cards different from one cigarette card company to another), and then the 85-card series that I will start and complete in 2018.
The 75-card (and 85-card) series’ each have the same cards 1-50, with an almost identical set of an additional 25 cards (4 are different) for the 75-card series, and 10 additional cards for the two 85-card series.
I hope this write-up has alleviated some of the confusion regarding collecting these Wills’s aviation cards.
Years after I first wrote this page, I keep finding out more things about the various sets. I only realized there were variations in the 75-card green back issues from Capstan and Vice Regal (only) featuring matte backs and glazed backs.
These variations aren’t just for some cards and not others. I have found that glazed sets and matte sets do exists for each. More to collect people. More to collect.
And, lastly… I have been outbid many times by fellow collectors on auction sites (twice in the month of September 2017 alone)… congratulations. Just know I hate you all. LOL!
I do want to set up a trading base for collectors of these cards. I will list all my duplicates with images front and back of each… and will NOT sell them to you. I will trade with you card for card, one for one, and insist that each party pays the postage to ship, themselves, knowing that the other is doing the same. Yes… some countries may have a higher or lower shipping rate… but we are talking about trading cards that even with cardboard around it, should be the same weight as a postcard or a birthday card being sent.
Crap like seeing a $2 card sold and then $10 for shipping on ONE card… well…. who believes that is the real shipping price? Exactly. For anyone wishing to get a head start… contact me, and I’ll compile my trade list and see if there’s anything I have, that you need.
Oh… keep in mind, that my plan is for more of us collectors to complete our sets.
As long as the cards are not missing paper to obscure the artwork or the words on the reverse… well… G to EX copies of cards should be traded STILL, one for one. Screw condition. We just want to complete our collections.
Once the collection(s) is/are complete, then you can continue to collect by finding those GEM Mint cards everyone wants, and can pay the price requested.
Lastly… I would appreciate ANY information on the above cards: actual issue dates; numbers produced; WHY are there Green and Black backs for the 75card series of Capstan, Havelock and Vice Regal; and is it just me because I live in Canada, but are Havelock brand cards more difficult to find?; and why after five years did I only JUST get my first ever Havelock Green 75-card (just one); are Green backs more difficult to get a hold off than the Black backs; Did Green cards come in a particular brand of Capstan, Havelock and Vice Regal? I had hoped it was a menthol pack… but somehow I doubt it’s that simple; and are sellers legitimately charging more for Green vs Black backs and Why?; And lastly… does anyone know why the 75-card series has glazed and matte backs on the Capstan and Vice Regal green-backs?; okay very last question – why are there four different cards in the 75-card series between Capstan and Vice Regal black backs… were the brands offered a choice on what each could present, and if so, why was there so much agreement on what was produced?
Yeah, I ask a lot of frickin’ questions. I was a newspaper journalist, true, but I am the sort of person who demands the whole story.
It’s why, when you read any of the research I have done on the cards here in this blog, It takes me some 20-30 hours apiece to investigate just what the 75-words on the reverse of the cards is all about… or even if it is correct.
If you spot an error, and can prove it, please let me know… I only want to be correct. And thorough. But mostly correct.
By the way… the nice combined images were done on a web program at www.IMGonline.com.ua – very easy to figure out!