Obscure Card of the Month: T38 Aviators Wright Brothers Card

This month’s obscure card is an early tobacco release for famed aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright

Last year, I found myself getting a bit more into aviation cards. It started with a few pickups of Amelia Earhart issues and, like most of my collecting habits, soon dovetailed into a much larger interest in the ‘sport.’

That’s right. Sport. If you’re not aware, aviation was, in its early days, very much considered a sport. Some may still refer to it in that manner today but certainly less so. Early aviation, of course, was much riskier than air travel today. Aviation isn’t a perfect science, I suppose, and accidents do still occur. But air travel is commonplace today as opposed to the early 1900s when we were still just figuring it out.

The 1911 T38 Aviators set is certainly one of the more popular aviation issues in the pre-war era, even if many collectors are not familiar with it. Sure, it trails National Chicle’s more vibrant Sky Birds set in the 1930s but it is easily one of the more recognizable sets when it comes to depicting the earliest aviators. And one card in it is the Obscure Card of the Month.

While some big names are found, the biggest card in the set is one picturing the famous Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Wilbur, it should be noted, was also given an individual card in the offering (and side note, it’s a fantastic image). However, it’s the card picturing both of the Wright Brothers that typically commands the most attention.

Their card pictures the pair, along with a third, unidentified man. The quality of the image, to be fair, is not a spectacular one. While the other cards in the set feature detailed, high-quality lithographic pictures, this one is certainly lacking. To me, it is the least appealing picture in the entire set. However, that flaw aside, this is still the key card in the release on the name of the Wright Brothers alone.

The back includes a fantastic writeup of the two, first mentioning their early work in Kitty Hawk North Carolina before indicating they were the first to produce a ‘practical power machine successfully flown by man’. It concludes that the Wrights are ‘worthy of all tribute and their names will go down in history with the greatest of inventors.’ More than 100 years later, that claim has stood the test of time.

Notably, the set is believed to have been released only shortly before Wilbur’s death. The series is believed to have been distributed in 1911 and Wilbur died in May of 1912 after contracting Typhoid Fever. While many cards of the Wright Brothers have been produced over the years, this is certainly one of the earliest — and it is arguably their earliest ‘common’ issue. The duo is seen on postcards issued a few years prior to this. However, this may be the first standard trading card of the men pictured together.

Collectors should note there are two types of back variations found on the cards. The more common back type has an all gold background with cards printed for United Cigar Stores. That company was touted on the back as the largest retailers of cigars and tobacco in the world. The less common back type has a white background and indicated those cards were packed with Tokio and Mezzin cigarettes by the United Cigar Stores.

The Tokio and Mezzin back is undoubtedly rarer. Despite that, I haven’t observed much of a premium in terms of price being paid for them. Dealers that know of the rarity will possibly seek more but hammer prices on auctions don’t seem to be too much higher for them. Prices for low-grade T38 Wright cards typically start in the $50-$100 range, but dealers understanding their rarity can ask for significantly more.

Both are unquestionably tough to find. PSA has graded a grand total of only four of this card — and all of the gold back variation. They have not graded a single white back variation thus far.

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