The Old Hotness: Churchman tobacco cards

I haven’t dipped more than a toe into the vintage sports card market to this point for a few reasons:

  1. A lot of vintage cards worth having are kind of expensive and rare
  2. The sets I find most attractive, for the most part, are also sets others find attractive, and thus, those sets are a little harder to collect (and besides, do I really want to go for a full set of old cards, knowing in advance there’s a couple hundred cards in the set?)
  3. And if I do go for a full set of, say, mid-’50s baseball cards, I’d eventually need to get a Mantle or some other huge high dollar card to finish it. And if I’m not going for a full set, how do I decide which cards to keep an eye out for?
  4. That said, there are literally millions of affordable vintage cards/sets out there, but where does one start?

Occasionally, though, something will cross my radar that sits right at the intersection of unique, attractive, old, and affordable, to the point that I consider buying it. I recently made my first purchase in this vein: 25 cards from the 1938 Churchman Cigarettes set of English league footballers for about $25.

Churchman is an interesting company with an interesting history of card production. During the second World War, they produced a set to help teach English people how to prepare for and survive bombing attacks. They produced a set called “In Town Tonight” with color illustrations and biographies of interesting and noteworthy people, including authors, inventors, military heroes, and socialites. They produced highly regarded sets of boxing cards, racing cards, and cards for other athletic endeavors, including a sought-after Jesse Owens card.

The only reason I even know these cards exist is because I watched a video by one of the few trading card YouTubers worth watching, a fellow named Chris Sewell who runs a channel called Baseball Card Collector Investor Dealer (in that order, as he always stresses), who routinely puts out videos about recent online auctions of interesting collectible cards. In that video, he showed a couple of Churchman football (soccer) cards he’d recently purchased, and I thought they were beautiful. The black and white photography, the crisp white borders, the stately typesetting of the player name and team … it all just smacked me in the face with its beauty, so I went to eBay to see what I could find, and the lot of cards I wound up purchasing was the first result when I searched for Churchman football cards.

I was excited to find 25 70-plus-year-old cards for about a dollar a card, and I did a bit of research to make sure it wasn’t just a stack of scrubs (and it wasn’t, there are some bona fide footballing legends in there), but I ultimately clicked “buy it now” within about 20 minutes of finding the listing. In retrospect, though it was a good buy, I’ve since learned that the whole set is only 50 cards (I now have half of them), and full sets have gone for as little as $70 in recent weeks.

These cards aren’t necessarily likely to skyrocket in value any time soon, though Chris made the excellent point in his video that, if these were cards of comparable baseball players from the late 1930s, even the lowest of the lowbie cards in the set would be worth at least what I paid for the lot of 25 in fair, ungraded condition. Obviously the demand for baseball cards is and has always been higher than the demand for football cards, but in the last year or so, soccer/football cards have been the fastest-growing segment of the trading card market by far. Who’s to say this small investment won’t be somewhat profitable within the next few years as the larger world of footy fans starts to explore the trading card hobby?

Really, though, I bought the cards because they were cool and they were affordable, not as a retirement plan. And as I started to look at the other Churchman offerings spanning back to the 1910s, I realized: This could be my vintage niche. Every set they’ve produced that I’ve seen is somewhere between attractive and utterly gorgeous. For some reason, the vast majority of the cards I’ve seen offered, even ungraded, have been in MUCH better condition than American cards of the same vintage. Were the English just that much more thoughtful about preserving their tobacco cards in the early part of the 20th century?

At any rate, I went back to the well and purchased the Kings of Speed set that includes famous aviators, race car drivers bobsledders, and that aforementioned world-conquering young American sprinter named Jesse Owens. This time, I got the whole set.

And as I started to purchase singles of the cards I needed to finish the football set, I realized I could probably save money by just keeping an eye out for another full set of them. Sure enough, I soon located a full 50-card set, including the rarer and more sought-after Stanley Matthews card, for about $75 shipped from the UK. The set is in much better condition than some of the more beat-up ones from the first purchase.

I love the mix of illustrations (like the Keeping in the upper left, the Lawton next to it, and the Niewenhuys in the lower center of that image) and action photography (like the rest of them visible in that image). Interestingly, the Matthews card appears to depict him in his England kit (note the three lions crest on his left breast) instead of his domestic league Stoke kit. His success with England (and his frequent appearances for the national team during the league season) was apparently a point of tension between him and the rest of the Stoke locker room in the late 1930s. He even submitted a transfer request at one point, but the Stoke ownership and the fans were relentless in trying to persuade him to stay with the Potters, even going as far as to track him down on holiday and badger him. He relented in the end, and is still to this day easily the best player to ever put on the Stoke red and white.

I’ll probably share some more cool stories of these pre-war football players at some point, because I don’t think I’m done wading around in this area of the vintage collecting pool.

One thought on “The Old Hotness: Churchman tobacco cards

  1. […] As I wrote about recently, I invested a very small amount of money into two full 50-card sets of pre… celebrating human achievements in speed, including auto racing, aviation, bobsledding, and track running. Most of the cards are in pretty decent shape for being 70-plus years old, and they’re uncommonly beautiful, at least to me. I love the sharp black and white photography (and some of the pictures appear to be drawn/painted as well) and the simple but iconic card design, as well as the smartly written informational text on the back of each card. Churchman’s, I was finding, made some cards worth collecting. […]

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