Circulation: The total number of T206 cards circulated is anyone's guess. However, cigarette sales data published in the U.S. Government's Report of the Commissioner of Corporations on the Tobacco Industry, Part III Prices, Costs and Profits (1915) provide circumstantial evidence that the number could have reached an astounding 370,000,000.
In 1910, the total number of cigarettes produced in the U.S. was roughly 10 billion. Cigarettes were divisible at the time into three classes: domestic, Turkish blend and Turkish. Domestic cigarettes were made from the bright-yellow domestic tobaccos of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Turkish blend cigarettes were made from a mixture of these domestic tobaccos with Turkish leaf tobaccos grown principally in Turkey.
Turkish cigarettes were made entirely from Turkish leaf tobaccos.
Most of the 10 billion cigarettes produced in 1910 were in the domestic class. And here, the American Tobacco Company was the dominant player. ATC sold 5.3 billion domestic cigarettes that year, under major brand names such as Piedmont, Hassan, Mecca, Fatima and Sweet Caporal. While the popularity of the once-dominant Sweet Caporal brand was waning, the output of some of the newer domestic brands - Piedmont, Hassan, Mecca and Fatima - exceeded one billion cigarettes each.
Using the one billion production number for Piedmont cigarettes in 1910 as a marker, one can extrapolate a T206 circulation in the neighborhood of 370 million. In particular, it is known that there were 10 cigarettes in a Piedmont pack and that a typical Piedmont pack contained one T206 card. Assuming pack-only distribution of Piedmont cigarettes and further assuming every Piedmont pack had a T206 card, the number of Piedmont-backed T206 cards produced in 1910 can be estimated at about 100 million. Furthermore, it is known that approximately half of all T206 cards have a Piedmont reverse. Thus, one can assume that the total number of T206s produced in 1910 was in the neighborhood of 200 million. Assuming an additional seven months of production in 1909 and three months in 1911 at equivalent rates to the 1910 production, the total production estimate for T206 cards nearly doubles to a whopping 370 million.
On the other hand, actual circulation may well have been somewhat lower. It has been reported that in 1910 and 1911, bird and fish subjects were distributed in some Old Mill, Piedmont, Sovereign and Sweet Caporal packs instead of baseball subjects. This would likely have meaningfully reduced the number of T206 cards circulated.
Survivability: While T206 production quantities likely dwarfed those for most if not all other card sets ever made, the high production volume has been offset by a low survival rate. A low survival rate can be assumed for several reasons.
First, T206 cards were distributed as a premium rather than as a primary product. Most early 1900s cigarette purchasers were interested in a smoke, not a small cardboard insert depicting a baseball player. As painful as it is to ponder for those of us who love T206, tens of millions of T206 specimens were probably discarded without so much as an initial viewing.
Second, T206 cards were distributed to an adult population. Most adults are far less interested in saving novelty items than kids.
Third, baseball cards had no economic value at the time. There was accordingly no economic incentive to keep them. Only those who had developed a passion for a relatively new sport - or at least knew someone else who had - would have bothered to save the cards.
All this is not to mention the significant obstacles to survival posed in the near-century bridging original distribution with the present day. These include the passing of several generations of T206 owners, countless moves, harsh storage conditions and World War II paper drives, to name just a few. It must be remembered that T206 cards must have survived all this despite their fragility and near worthlessness from an economic standpoint until only recently.
One speculation-laden analysis would place the surviving number of T206 specimens in the 1.6 million range. Such an analysis extrapolates that figure from an estimate of the surviving quantities of two rare subjects, Demmitt (St. Louis) and O'Hara (St. Louis). These subjects are known only with the Polar Bear reverse; however, they are not notably scarcer with that back than other 350-only subjects. The Polar Bear back was seen on about 6.6 percent of the total population of 350-only Series subjects in a 14,000-plus card sub-survey I conducted. Thus, if one assumes that roughly 200 of each of these rare subjects remain in existence, and further assumes that survival rates for these subjects conform with those of other subjects, the surviving quantity of a typical 350-only subject is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000.
Finally, assuming for the sake of rough-and-ready calculation uniformity of survival among series, the total number of T206 specimens in existence today could be estimated in the general vicinity of 1.6 million. Of course, if there are 400 examples each of Demmitt (St. Louis) and O'Hara (St. Louis) extant instead of 200, the presumed number of T206 cards with us today doubles to 3.2 million, or about 6,000 per subject on average, under this same analysis.
In any case, of the likely hundreds of millions of specimens initially produced, it seems highly probable that the number of T206 cards in existence today is in the low single-digit millions, or a few thousand for a typical subject. This is quite possibly less than one percent of the original production, with the vast majority of these survivors being in lower grade.
Distribution Timeline: Many T206 cards self-identify into one of three distinct series based on the number of subjects their backs indicate the set includes. These are "150 subjects" (150 Series), "350 subjects" (350 Series) and "460 subjects" (460 Series). It is not unusual for people to associate these series with production runs in 1909, 1910 and 1911, respectively. However, as is often the case with T206, the reality is far more complex.
One complication arises from the backs of T206 cards that do not self-identify into any series. These so-called "assorted" backs include Carolina Brights, El Principe de Gales, Hindu, Old Mill, Polar Bear, Tolstoi, Ty Cobb and Uzit. Fortunately, these backs can be assigned to series through association with the subjects with which they appear.
For example, if an assorted back is seen with a subject that is known to appear with "350 subjects" backs but not "150 subjects" or "460 subjects" backs, it can be inferred that assorted back is a 350-only Series back and was issued roughly contemporaneously with the 350 Series. Specific associations of assorted backs with series will be discussed in later sections.
A more perplexing difficulty in establishing a T206 distribution timeline is caused by series traversal. That is, many subjects in the T206 set can be found with backs that self-identify into more than one series. There are a few subjects that only appear in the 150 Series. However, most subjects that first appear in the 150 Series can also be found in smaller quantities in the 350 Series. This requires dividing the subjects that first appear in the 150 Series into two distinct series: a 150-only Series and a 150/350 Series.
Similarly, some subjects that first appear in the 350 Series were continued in the 460 Series. This initially suggests d ividing of such subjects into a 350-only series and a 350/460 series. However, a little-known fact is that of the subjects in the 350/460 series, six - specifically: Chance (Yellow Background); Chase (Blue Background); Chase (Dark Cap); Cobb (Red Portrait); Evers (Yellow Background); and Mathewson (Dark Cap) are theoretically possible with all 350 and 460 Series back types except American Beauty 350 Without Frame, while the remainder of the subjects in the 350/460 Series are theoretically possible with American Beauty 350 Without Frame but a subset of the other 350 and 460 Series back types.
This necessitates dividing of the subjects that first appear in the 350 Series into three distinct series: a 350-only Series, a 350/460 "Super Print" (SP) Series which includes the six noted 350/460 subjects and a 350/460 "Regular Print" (RP) Series which includes the rest of the 350/460 subjects.
A 460-only Series, two distinct series of Southern Leaguers and a few subjects that defy classification add further wrinkles. Nonetheless, the discussion that follows attempts to provide an approximate distribution timeline for the no fewer than eight distinct T206 series outlined above.
Phase I Release: 150-Only, 150/350 and Non-Texas Southern Leaguers - Indications are that the 150-only and 150/350 Series subjects were released contemporaneously in the summer of 1909 based on artwork completed in the winter/spring of 1909. The main difference between these series is that the subjects in the 150/350 Series experienced an extended print run that resulted in availability with 350 Series backs, albeit in limited quantities.
A winter/spring 1909 creation date for these subjects is supported by team changes in early 1909. Wid Conroy appears in the 150/350 Series with Washington. He was purchased by the Senators from the New York Highlanders on Feb. 17, 1909, which conclusively establishes creation of his card after that date. Neal Ball appears in the 150/350 Series with the New York Highlanders. He was bought by Cleveland on May 18, 1909, which means his New York card was probably drawn before that. Bob Ganley and George Browne are likewise shown in the 150/350 and 150-only Series, respectively, with teams they left in May 1909, suggestive of earlier creation of their artwork.
A summer 1909 initial release of 150-only and 150/350 Series subjects is supported by advertising. The first known advertisement for the T206 set appeared in the July 3, 1909, issue of Sporting Life magazine. The ad showed 10 major league subjects that are known in either the 150-only or 150/350 Series and indicated that these subjects were part of a series of 150 ballplayers that could be obtained in packages of Piedmont, Sweet Caporal and Sovereign cigarettes. The ad ran almost weekly until Aug. 21, 1909, when it was replaced by a second ad that showed 10 different major leaguers from these series.
One of the subjects shown in the later ad just happened to be the sports collecting hobby's greatest prize: Wagner (Pittsburg). It has been speculated, though without substantiation, that this ad might have tipped off Hans that he was in the set and prompted him to take action to stop the ATC from further use of his likeness. The ad featuring Wagner last ran on Sept. 18, 1909.
On a separate track, other subjects were being featured in Hindu cigarette advertisements published in a New Orleans newspaper. Some of these ads depicted players from teams in the Southern Association. These were two of the 48 "Southern Leaguers" in the set that are notable for their difficulty.
Based on the above considerations, it can be assumed that 150-only and 150/350 Series major league subjects, and at least some Southern League subjects, first became available in the summer of 1909 based on artwork created during the immediately preceding winter and spring.
Phase II Release: 350-Only, 350/460 "Super Prints" and Texas Leaguers - Dating the initial release of the 350-only Series is more difficult. One can look to trades involving subjects in the 350-only Series for evidence of creation dates, although this analysis is fraught with peril. Bobby Byrne is shown in the 350-only Series with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was traded to Pittsburg on Aug. 19, 1909, which would seem to suggest his card was drawn before that. Chappy Charles also appears in this series with the St. Louis Cardinals; he was shipped to Cincinnati for Mike Mowrey three days after the Byrne trade. And Mowrey, like Charles, appears in this series with his old team. Similarly, Claude Rossman is illustrated in this series with Detroit, though he was sent to the St. Louis Browns on Aug. 20, 1909.
Without further analysis, these four case studies seem to uniformly support a creation date for 350-only Series subjects before mid-August of 1909.
However, this evidence is not uncontroverted. Byrne was traded to the Pirates for Jap Barbeau, who appears in the 350-only Series with his new team, the St. Louis Cardinals. This conclusively establishes that Barbeau's card was drawn after Aug. 19, 1909. And akin to the Barbeau situation, Bill Dahlen and Kid Elberfeld appear in the 350-only Series with teams they joined after the 1909 season. In particular, Elberfeld was purchased by Washington from the New York Highlanders on Dec. 14, 1909, while Dahlen left the Boston Rustlers to become the Brooklyn skipper sometime in the offseason between 1909 and 1910.
A timeline consistent with these seemingly incongruous data points would have the 350-only Series subjects created over a period of several months starting in the summer of 1909, with a few selective modifications to the artwork perhaps continuing into the winter of 1910. In accordance with these creation dates and known T206 availability patterns, general release of this series may have occurred in the winter/spring of 1910, without Dahlen (Brooklyn) and Elberfeld (Washington). Such a release date would be consistent with known availability patterns since Barbeau (which was likely drawn in the fall of 1909, shortly after his team switch) is as ubiquitous as most other 350-only Series subjects, whereas Dahlen (Brooklyn) and Elberfeld (Washington) (which were likely created in the winter of 1910, after their respective team switches) are noticeably scarcer.
A winter/spring 1910 release for the 350-only Series also jibes with a March 26, 1910, ad for Old Mill cigarettes published in the sports pages of the Atlanta Constitution. The advertisement appears to show Viola, a T206 subject from the Southern Association, fronting a second T206 card and a coupon within a pack of Old Mill cigarettes. These T206 subjects would have had the Old Mill Southern League back, which is closely associated with the 350-only Series due its availability with six Texas League subjects which otherwise appear only with the Piedmont 350 back and which were not part of the original 1909 Hindu-only Southern Leaguer launch.
This does not mean that the 350-only Series subjects would have necessarily become available in the winter/spring of 1910 with all 350 Series brands. It has been reported elsewhere, for example, that distribution of the American Beauty 350 Series did not start until July 3, 1910.
The six subjects in the 350/460 SP Series were likely released at the same time as the 350-only Series subjects, i.e. in winter/spring of 1910. A common launch for these series is supported by the fact that these six subjects appear in theory with all backs found on 350-only Series subjects.
It also is supported by the fact that these subjects are far more common than the 350/460 RP subjects. It seems likely that, analogous to the "holdover" situation with the 150/35 0 Series, ATC decided to extend into the 460 Series a subset (in this case a very small subset of only six) of subjects that were launched concurrently with the 350-only Series.
Phase III Release: 350/460 "Regular Prints" - Unlike the six 350/460 SP subjects, the 350/460 RP subjects do not appear to have been holdovers from the 350-only Series. Instead, the 350/460 RP subjects seem to have been released as a separate series sometime after the 350-only Series launch.
This is supported by the fact that these subjects are impossible with several back types found on 350-only Series subjects. Moreover, examples of 350/460 RP subjects bearing the American Beauty 350 back do not have a frame, whereas with one lone exception 350-only and 350/460 SP subjects sporting the American Beauty 350 back do display a frame. This printing disparity is consistent with independent launch of the 350/460 RP subjects sometime after the 350-only Series release.
Team changes date release of the 350/460 RP Series to summer of 1910 based on winter/spring 1910 artwork. Vic Willis was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals on Feb. 15, 1910, setting the earliest date for creation of his two 350/460 RP Series St. Louis cards. Harry McIntyre was traded from Brooklyn to the Chicago Cubs on April 13, 1910. The McIntyre trade is reflected on the team listing of his 350/460 RP Series card, but not in the artwork (he is still shown with Brooklyn). This may indicate that the deadline for 350/460 RP Series artwork changes had passed before McIntyre's mid-April trade, but that the cards had not been released and minor printing updates such as changes in the team caption were still possible. That the 350/460 RP Series had not been released by mid-April 1910 is supported by the fact that McIntyre (Brooklyn and Chicago) is available in quantities typical of a 350/460 RP Series card. Taken together, these data points seem supportive of winter/spring 1910 creation for the 350/460 RP Series, with initial release likely within a few months thereafter.
As with the 350-only Series, it must be emphasized that the 350/460 RP Series would not necessarily have been available this early with all brands. For example, it has been reported elsewhere that the rare Uzit-branded T206 cards were not distributed until March 18, 1911, in the 11th hour of T206 distribution.
Phase IV: 460-Only - The 460-only Series was likely released in the fall of 1910 based on artwork completed the preceding spring and summer. Happy Smith is shown with Brooklyn in the 460-only Series. He was shipped to the Superbas as part of the April 13, 1910, trade for Harry McIntyre. While the artwork deadline had apparently passed for the 350/460 RP Series by that date, as evidenced by McIntyre (Brooklyn and Chicago), Smith (Brooklyn) evidences that it had not yet passed for the 460-only Series.
Two trades occurring after April 1910 are reflected in 460-only Series cards. The first is Red Kleinow's purchase by the Boston Red Sox from the New York Highlanders on May 26, 1910, which is reflected in a re-released version of his 350-only Series card with a new team listing. The second is Frank Smith's trade from the Chicago White Sox to the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 9, 1910, which is similarly reflected in a team change relative to his 350-only Series card. These data points suggest, perhaps, that the artwork deadline for the 460-only series had passed by May 26, 1910 (or shortly thereafter when ATC became aware of the Kleinow trade), but that minor printing alterations such as caption changes were permitted for a few more months. A Fall 1910 initial release of the 460-only series without Kleinow (Boston) or Smith (Chicago and Boston) is consistent with all the above data, since Kleinow (Boston) to some extent and Smith (Chicago and Boston) to a greater extent are scarcer than other cards in the 460-only Series.
The T206 Archives Series resumes in the July 21 Tobacco Card special issue of Sports Collectors Digest, with the next installment featuring more of the history of the famed set, including detailed information about the individual series.