Wednesday, January 5, 2011

T206 Backs: Tobacco & Baseball Cards

***The information in this article was used to write our ebook, Before There Was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Card Sets.  To purchase the ebook, please click here.***

From 1909-11, the American Tobacco Company produced one of the most popular Pre-War sets ever made: T206 baseball cards. Everyone knows about the Honus Wagner baseball card, but not much is known about the origins of the different backs. has seen most of these rare backs before, but we are always looking to buy new collections that include T206 baseball cards.

The American Tobacco Company, owned by James Buchanan Duke, was an enormous tobacco industry leader in the first decade of the 20th century. It was so big, in fact, that it would be forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to dissolve its monopoly on the tobacco industry in 1911, breaking into several smaller companies. Prior to 1911, however, American Tobacco Company owned dozens of cigarette brands that it had acquired by purchasing the smaller companies that manufactured them. Then they kept the cigarette design, the logo, and even the original manufacturer’s name on the box to avoid losing loyal customers. When American Tobacco Company began printing the cards of popular baseball players and inserting them in their different cigarette packages, they made 16 different backs depending on the brand. In total, there are 523 possible back/front combinations.

The two most common backs are Piedmont and Sweet Caporal brands. Piedmont was a popular tobacco company that still exists today as an independent company in Henderson, South Carolina. In the early part of the 20th century, there was even a Piedmont baseball league that featured teams around the Carolinas and Virginia. The Piedmont Plateau continues to produce a large portion of the tobacco grown in the United States today. The Sweet Caporal brand was originally owned by the Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company, which was located in New York City. The company was purchased by the American Tobacco Company in 1911.

Several backs are considered readily available and are only slightly more expensive than the two most common backs. El Principe de Gales, or “Prince of Wales” in English, was originally manufactured in Havana, Cuba by a Spanish cigar company. Old Mill has two possible variations on the back. Old Mill cigarettes are more common and feature both major and minor league players. The Old Mill advertisement features players from the southern leagues. This included teams from the Southern, South Atlantic, Texas, and Virginia Leagues. Only Southern League players are known to have brown ink Old Mill backs. Polar Bear, the only non-cigarette brand advertised, was loose or scrap tobacco that was more likely to stain the cards. Polar Bear tobacco was originally manufactured by the Luhrman & Wilbern Tobacco Company until it was purchased by the American Tobacco Company. The Sovereign backs, featuring the phrase “fit for a king”, may have been similar to British cigarettes at the time.
Other backs are considered less common and can cost up to twice as much as commons. The American Beauty brand includes both framed and un-framed variations and their cards are thinly cut in comparison to the other brands because they were placed in skinnier cigarette packages. The Cycle brand is relatively unremarkable, other than the fact that its boxes, which have an illustration of a person riding a bicycle with a large front wheel, are very rare. The Tolstoi cigarettes were supposed to be Russian-style cigarettes, or papirosi, which have long, hollow cardboard mouthpieces and remained popular with Eastern European immigrants. The Tolstoi boxes look very similar to the Piedmont design.

Some of the scarce backs can cost at least five times the common backs. Broadleaf 350 backs were issued with the 350 card series. There are three possible series: 150, 350, and 460. Broadleaf cards came in a box with an Egyptian design on the front. Broadleaf tobacco is a subspecies of tobacco that has been existent in the United States for several centuries and is considered a good cigar wrapper. Carolina Brights backs were originally manufactured by the Wells-Whitehead Tobacco Company out of Wilson, North Carolina. The company was purchased by American Tobacco Company in 1908, but the purchased was not publicized in order to retain the customers who were loyal to the brand. The Hindu backs were issued with Southern, South Atlantic, and Virginia League players. No examples of Hindu cigarette foil boxes exist, but full pages ads for the cigarettes from the New Orleans Times-Picayune still survive today.

The rare backs are exceedingly expensive and can cost at least ten times what the common backs command. Hindu backs that were printed with red ink and Broadleaf 460 are both considered rare back variations. T206 cards with a Drum back are unusually tough and tend to survive fairly well in comparison to other brands. They were originally manufactured in St. Louis by the Drummond Tobacco Company, which specialized in plug tobacco. Drummond then became the Continental Tobacco Company before it was purchased by American Tobacco Company in 1898 and had its factories moved to Virginia. Lenox cigarettes were another mouthpiece brand and T206 Lenox backs can be found in both red and black ink. Uzit cigarettes were yet another mouthpiece brand that was reminiscent of Eastern European brands like Tolstoi cigarettes.

The rarest T206 back is Ty Cobb's own cigarette brand. It can be found on only the Ty Cobb red back portrait. The cigarettes contained granulated cut plug tobacco and were sold in tins, which are also an expensive collector’s item. is still looking for these rare backs. If you are selling them, please click here. If you are interested in learning more about T206 cards or purchasing them, please click here.
T206 baseball cards are some of the most expensive Pre-War cards available, so the reprints for this set are particularly popular. To view our reprint single cards and complete sets, click here.

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