Football as art: 1935 Wills’s association football tobacco cards

It’s strange how one’s tastes can evolve over time, and sometimes over such a short period of time that the change is noticeable and remarkable. For instance, I used to see super-vintage pre-war cards as something I’d never really get involved in for several reasons.

For one, most of them aren’t in great shape, and dinged-up cards have always bummed me out. Secondly, the aesthetics of them never really appealed to me. Most are just portraits, and while I appreciate a good portrait, very few of them have ever really grabbed me. Even the world-famous Honus Wagner T206 card is just OK. One thing that always bothered me about that card, while we’re here: Did the shirt he was wearing actually say “Pittsburg” in block letters across the chest, or was that added in by the painter? It looks added in, like a bad Photoshop.

Thirdly — and let’s be real, this is the biggest reason I willfully ignored them as a collecting option — I only knew pre-war cards as objects of high value, where even the most common, unsung players with the most dinged-up cards fetch prices in the three digits, and that’s where things start. For reference, I’ve only ever spent more than $100 on a single card once in my collecting career, so me spending that kind of money on a bashed-up card of Johnny McWashout who was a car mechanic before spending one lucky year as a utility infielder in the 1900s is unlikely at best.

And when I say “I used to” see things this way, I’m talking about like five, six months ago. Now I’ve made discoveries about collecting — about the sets that are available, about some gorgeous old cards representing all sorts of sports and cultural topics — that have essentially reversed all of those opinions. It happened quite quickly.

As I wrote about recently, I invested a very small amount of money into two full 50-card sets of pre-war cards from the United Kingdom: A set of Churchman’s association football from 1938 and a set of Churchman’s cards from the same year 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.

I continued to look at other vintage tobacco card manufacturers as well, however, in my quest for sets that intersect at the point of the most beautiful, the most interesting, and of course the most affordable. Some sets and cards hit two of the three marks, but one in particular absolutely locked down each of those three attributes: The 50-card Wills’s Cigarettes 1935 association footballers set.

Wills, a tobacco company founded in the 1880s in Bristol, England, was the first mass-producer of cigarettes in the United Kingdom, and a pioneer in the field of tobacco sports cards. As tobacco companies tended to do, they eventually merged with another company and over time the Wills name was phased out. It was 1887, though, when they started including “advertising cards” with their packs of smokes, and over the years produced sets depicting flowers, butterflies, golfers, cricketers, and of course, football players.

They produced three sets of football cards: 1905, 1935, and 1939. My example is the 1935 set, purchased at auction as the sole bid, $20, plus shipping, from the United Kingdom.

I am profoundly happy with this purchase. For about $30 in total, I now own what appears to be a personally collected and collated set; it seems to have been completed over time, as some of the cards are obviously more worn than others. I’m excited enough about it to keep my eyes open for affordable options for the other two Wills football sets (or any of their other issues). So this set definitely ticks the affordable and interesting boxes, is it beautiful?

At left, the 1935 Wills card for Sep Smith, considered to be the best all-around player in Leicester City history, shown next to his 1938 Churchman card. I take nothing away from the Churchman set, which is beautiful in its own right, when I say the quality, depth, vibrancy, and intensity of these player portraits in the Wills set is flat-out stunning. Here’s a slideshow with some more examples.

  1. As much as I love the black and white look of the Churchman set, these colors absolutely leap off the page, particularly when collected in a binder like this.
  2. There are so many stunning, life-like portraits in the set it’s hard to pick just one or two to share, but check this one of Horatio “Raich” Carter, a footballer and cricketer then with Sunderland. The light in his eyes, the careful shading of his features, the draping of his striped kit top, it all adds up to astounding portraiture.
  3. The backs are more or less identical to the Churchman issue but no less interesting. Regarding the similarity of the design, as I alluded to earlier, these tobacco companies tended to merge and partner up quite a bit, and by the early 1900s, both Wills and Churchman were part of the Imperial Tobacco family, which I figure explains the use of the same fonts and general design. The fact that these backs once had some sort of adhesive on them, presumably activated with moisture, makes it all the more amazing that they all survived the years so well without sticking to each other in piles.
  4. Interestingly (to me, at least), this set includes a handful of players from Scottish sides, such as Aberdeen and Heart of Midlothian (no Rangers or Celtic that I saw, though). There are no players from Scottish teams in the Churchman set. A tiny piece of interesting (to me, at least) trivia about Aberdeen is that they played in black and gold, as seen here on star inside forward Willie Mills, until 1939, when they first donned the red and white they’re known for to this day.
  5. Here’s the standout card of the set, as he was with the Churchman set: Sir Stanley Matthews. This one has a little bit of an ink smear on the top and back of the card, so it’s not like it’s in mint condition, but it’s still one I will consider having professionally graded once that world returns to some semblance of normalcy (if it ever does).

Now a guy who, as of New Year’s Day 2021, would have said “nah, old tobacco cards aren’t for me, finding sleeves and holders for them is a pain, they’re dingy, they cost too much, never mind all that,” now owns three complete sets of pre-war tobacco cards from the United Kingdom of all places, all purchased for around the cost of one 1911 Sweet Caporal Charley O’Leary card in SGC 3 grade. I’m not buying nearly as many sports cards now as I was late last year, but these days I’ll make time for a beautiful, interesting, and affordable set of vintage cards.

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