Roots of American Tennis found in 19th Century tobacco cards

Early tobacco cards introduced the sport to America

Quick – what are the earliest tennis players you can think of off the top of your head? Many collectors might reference early British star Fred Perry or American Bill Tilden, who starred in the 1920s. But few could tell you much about 19th Century Tennis, let alone name specific players.

But while the sport was just getting its legs here in America in the late 19th Century, it had already been played elsewhere in the world. Wimbledon, for example, began in 1877. The modern game of the sport was said to begin in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and forms of the sport had been played for several centuries before that.

First American Players

Despite those early starts elsewhere, America didn’t really get involved in the game until around 1880. Whenever looking for the ‘first’ of anything, it’s generally a wild goose chase. But one of the first recognized participants of the sport in this country was James Dwight.

Dwight had learned the game overseas in Europe and, in 1876, reportedly held a makeshift tournament with 13 people in his neighborhood (which he won over his cousin). The event predated even Wimbledon and is sometimes cited as the first American tournament.

Dwight had help in getting the sport off the ground. That aforementioned cousin, by the way, was pretty good, at least by comparison. His name was Richard Sears and early tennis enthusiasts surely know of Sears who won the first seven U.S. Open Tournaments. Both were instrumental in getting the U.S. Tennis Association off the ground and both served as president of the organization in its early days.

Tennis Cards

N29 Dwight Tennis

N162 Sears Tennis

19th Century tennis issues are not terribly common. Not that they didn’t exist. But with the sport just getting off the ground here American tennis issues, in particular, are few when limited to that time period.

But among those early cards, you’ll find both Dwight and Sears. While generic subjects appeared on cards earlier, I’m not certain if any tennis cards featuring actual players are known before the 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions set. In that issue, you’ll find a few players, including Sears in a red and white striped jacket.

That outfit wasn’t unique to Sears. Also in the set is Robert Livingston Beeckman and he has the same outfit. Beeckman, also a tennis player, was one of the guys that lost to Sears during his U.S. Open run. He would move on from the sport and go into politics, later serving as the governor of Rhode Island. Dwight is also in the set, albeit in different clothing, as is early doubles champion, Frederick Taylor.

Four tennis players are also found in the N29 Allen & Ginter set. That issue was printed in 1889, a year after the N162 Goodwin set.

There, you’ll unsurprisingly find both Dwight and Sears yet again. Both were also joined by two other early players that were not previously featured.

First, there was Henry Slocum. After Sears did not return to the U.S. Open to defend his title following his seven years of dominance, Slocum because the star of sorts. Slocum, who had just lost to Sears’ final year of 1887, returned to win back-to-back titles in 1888 and 1889. He, too, was a U.S. Tennis Association president during its early years. If there was a new player deserving of inclusion in the set, it was him.

The other player was an important addition as he was recognized as a world champion at the time. Tom Pettitt was included in the set and that was special as he was not an American player like the others. From England, Pettitt won world championships in 1885 and 1890 before retiring from the sport.

If you’re looking for these cards, you can generally get lower-grade ones for under $50. You’ll pay more for ones in better condition but it isn’t uncommon to see lower-grade ones sell for around $25-$50. Most people pursuing those sets are doing so for the baseball and boxing issues but the tennis cards are a great value as they are possibly the earliest ‘mainstream’ cards featuring actual players.

Beyond these sets, there wasn’t many tennis cards to be found featuring real American players. But as the sport would grow, so, too, would the number of tennis sets in the pre-war era. Most were international sets but collectors would grow to see many American players featured in the 1920s and 1930s.

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