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). Or at least that’s how it began.
I will use other cigarette cards as the basis of a biographical story… and since I have completed writing about all the cards in the Wills’s Aviation series (50-, 75-, and 85-card series, and Aviation Series sets), I am about to (as of July of 2020) begin writing about the 1915 Lambert & Butler Aviation series… a 25-card set, similar in design to Wills’s, but with “interesting” aviation subject choice. “Interesting” in quotes, because 105+ years later, they don’t make as much sense as it might have when first published.
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 – and there are many, different types of sets withing this genre to collect.
For the uninitiated W.D.& H.O Wills was a British tobacco importer and cigarette manufacturer formed in Bristol, England in 1786, and was a founding company of The Imperial Tobacco Co.
In 1886, the name of the company was changed from W.D & H.O. Wills and Sons to W.D. & H.O. Wills.
In 1893, the firm altered its name to W.O. & H.O. WILLS LIMITED (yup… all caps). It remained as such until 1901 when a merger would have it come under the stewardship of the British American Tobacco Co. Ltd. (aka BAT).
BAT took over the foreign business of the Imperial Tobacco Co. Ltd. on September 29, 1902 – a useful thing, because Imperial did not sell product in Great Britain et al.
Of course, Wills did have a foreign tobacco business long before Imperial was included (under the BAT business)… as evidenced by the Australian issues of the 75- and 85-card series by Vice Regal, Capstan, and Havelock cigarette brands.
Included in this merger under BAT, that make a difference to my monograph on aviation cards are: Eagle Bird, Motor, Ogden Tabs and other anonymous brands that used the same artwork fronts to include as cards for their tobacco products.
For example, the anonymous cards are actually issued by Canadian tobacco brands belonging to the Imperial Tobacco Co. under BAT ownership. BAT allowed Imperial Tobacco to use whatever card sets they wanted to use, when circulating their tobacco products in areas that Wills might not serve.
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.
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?
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!
At least that’s MY opinion.
For the rare T-206 series of baseball cards – getting a complete set regardless of cigarette branding on the reverse is extremely difficult (what with the extremely hard-to-find Honus Wagner card – 8 or 9 cards known). But for the Wills’s Aviation series and Aviation Series (series) card collector… you probably don’t have to be rich or lucky to complete the set… just patient. And maybe a bit lucky. And probably having more money than I do. But that’s beside the point.
It’s my opinion that the green-backed cards are extremely difficult to find in the 75-card series, regardless of Havelock, Capstan or Vice Regal backings. I suspect Havelock to be more difficult to find, regardless of the series – black or green backs. Perhaps it simply wasn’t a very popular brand of cigarettes or had a very limited distribution in Australia and New Zealand.
As for the black versus green-backed cards… I can’t find any reference as to why they would be distributed concurrently. One might think that the green ones were placed in menthol cigarette packs, but menthols did not appear until 1924 – or in great number until 1927.
None of the card guide books I have mentions that the Aviation 75-card series was published at any time other than at the same time – and the same goes for the 85-card series. They all say they were published in 1911. But that is not exactly correct.
The 75-card series and the 85-card series show that (at the very least) some of the higher-numbered cards in the series were produced in 1912 and even late in that year.
There are also 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.
But one can make a set of matte and one of glazed back cards in both Capstan and Vice Regal backings.
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 (matte or glazed) is more rare.
It also appears as though the glazed back cards have a smaller type font… or if not smaller, then “thinner”. See image below:
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 – with the green having slightly less detail than the black – proof of which can be seen if you look at the pilot or the fact that guy wires are missing in the green version.
Types of Cards:
- Blue teal ink-back set of 50 cards. Great Britain. With “Wills’s Cigarettes.” clause. Issued beginning January of 1910. This set is plentiful. Don’t overpay for any set where the cards have rounded corners or are the front edges or reverse isn’t white. Called the “HOME Issue”, aka “Set A”;
- Black ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Capstan Navy Cut brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause. Only matte back finish. Difficult but not impossible to find cards. Australia issued – early 1912. “Set B”;
- Black ink-back set of 85 cards denoting Vice Regal brand of tobacco. With “Wills Cigarettes” clause. Only matte back finish. Difficult but not impossible to find cards. Australia issued – early 1912. “Set C”.
- 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. Not too difficult to find cards. Australia issued – 1911. “Set D”;
- 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. The Havelock brand is difficult to find. Australia issued – 1911. “Set E”;
- 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. Not too difficult to find cards. Australia issued – 1911. “Set F”;
- Black ink-back set of 75 cards denoting no brand. Australia issued. No “Wills Cigarettes.” clause – 1911. Difficult to find cards. Called the “Anonymous issue”, aka “Set G”;
- 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 (“a” sub-set); Glazed backs (“b” sub-set). Very difficult to find cards. Australia issued – 1911. “Set H”;
- 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 for Havelock cards in this series. Extremely (more than “very”) difficult to find cards. Australia issued – 1911. “Set I”;
- 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 (“a” sub-set); Glazed backs (“b” sub-set). Very difficult cards to find. Australia issued – 1911. “Set J”;
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 brand cards include Eagle Bird Cigarettes (for the Siam, India, Malaya and China markets), Motor Virginia Cigarettes (for the Scandinavian market), and Ogden’s Tabs (for India and Malaya market). I do NOT have a card with a Motor back – I believe they were issued in Belgium:
- 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. The ink on the reverse is an olive green. Difficult cards to find. Issued in 1912 for the markets in Siam, India, Malaya and China;
- BAT Ogdens Tabs set of cards – the Tabs series is similar in scope to the BAT Eagle cards immediately above. For the India and Malaya markets. There are TWO types of back – or, if you will, two different sets: one with “Ogdens” at the base of the cigarette packet art (as seen above) and with a mossy green ink; and the other with “Ogdens England.” at the base (see below with a brighter green… and perhaps a different type of paper – brighter… but since I do not have a card from this issue… I can’t claim anything for sure). Very difficult to find either type of Ogdens Tabs cards;
- BAT Motor Cigarettes set of cards – is similar to the BAT Eagle and BAT Ogdens Tabs (both version) sets. For the Scandanavian market, and printed (I believe) in Denmark. According to the cartophile guidebooks, there are THREE printings of this particular series. I ASSUME the printings have differences that allow one to note what they are, but I can NOT find evidence (including in the Wills’s book(s) compiled by cartophiles in 1948 and revised in 1998). This (and the Ogdens Tabs with Ogdens England backing) have proved very elusive in my search through the Internet. The ink on the reverse is a blue-green (teal, if you wish). Extremely difficult to find cards. An image of the reverse is presented immediately below for your information:
- 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. I’ve only seen these cards for sale once on e-bay back in 2016, so I’ll say these re difficult cards to find;
- 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. These are part of the General Overseas Issues. As such the artwork may differ from the standard Wills’s cards. Imperial Tobacco (under BAT – British American Tobacco) was allowed to use Wills’s artwork slightly redrawn… Very difficult cards to find. This series was for the Channel Islands and is known as “Aviation Series” – “Set A”;
- 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 on the front. These are part of the General Overseas Issues. As such the artwork may differ from the standard Wills’s cards. Imperial Tobacco (under BAT – British American Tobacco) was allowed to use Wills’s artwork slightly redrawn… Very difficult cards to find. This is the “Aviation Series” – “Set B”;
- 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. These are part of the General Overseas Issues. As such the artwork may differ from the standard Wills’s cards. Imperial Tobacco (under BAT – British American Tobacco) was allowed to use Wills’s artwork slightly redrawn… Very difficult cards to find. This set was for the Channel Islands). This is the “Aviation Series” – “Set C”;
- 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. No “Album clause” on sides. These are part of the General Overseas Issues. As such the artwork may differ from the standard Wills’s cards. Imperial Tobacco (under BAT – British American Tobacco) was allowed to use Wills’s artwork slightly redrawn… Difficult cards to find. This is “Aviation Series” – Anonymous Issue “Set E”;
There are TWO more Anonymous 50-card Aviation Series Sets: Set D and Set F.
Set D lacks the “Wills’s Cigarettes” on fronts, but does have the Album clause. No image available. Extremely difficult cards to find.
Set F has plain backs – no words or branding. According to cartophile research, some of the cards have “traces” of “Wills’s Cigarettes” on the front. No image available. Extremely difficult cards to find.
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 24 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 – difficult to find;
… and various ones from Gallaher Ltd‘s The Great War Series (I & II) – difficult to find;
… and 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 75-card 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 than the Black backs; Did Green cards come in a particular brand of Capstan, Havelock and Vice Regal?; 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 within 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?
Okay…. what about the Eagle Bird, Ogdens Tabs and Motor cards… does anyone have any? And what about the Aviation Series – does anyone have a complete set?
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 each card I write about … to examine the 75-words on the reverse of the cards, and to separate fact from fiction and expand on it.
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!