I guess I’m going to spend this Covid lockdown blogging about my pre-war sets. In many ways this feels wholly appropriate. Much of the joy of the pre-war stuff comes in the way it functions as a way of showing the world to people who are unable to travel. these sets aren’t just about sports, they cover everything.
One such set I acquired a couple months ago is the aptly-named 1926 Will’s Cigarettes Wonders of the Past. We’ll start of with the big names which need no introduction. Even when I was a kid over six decades later I learned about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Can I still name them all from memory? No. But I sure can recognize them when I see them.
I don’t have a lot to say about the subject matter so I’ll comment on the artwork and how lush it is. There’s also a lot of three-point perspective going on which gives everything an extra sense of massiveness. These cards may only be around two and a half inches tall but the way the art is drawn makes it clear how huge the subjects actually are and give a sense of what it must’ve been like to see them.
As a photographer who often tries to avoid three-point perspectives and keep my verticals vertical, it’s good to be reminded that that impulse is not always the correct one.
The backs of the cards are the standard Will’s backs I’ve seen on other issues. I love reading them though since they manage to pack a lot of information into a nice concise space. They also frequently have a bit of an editorial view such as on the Colossus card and how it explicitly corrects the misperception that the legs were on both sides of the harbor.
I didn’t rotate the two horizontal ancient wonders cards because those seven cards are sort of the least interesting cards in the set. While at first glance this set seemed like the kind of thing that feature only the obvious subjects and its name made me think that it was recreating wonders that are long-gone, in fact it’s doing something much more marvelous.
Aside from the seven wonders cards this set takes you on a tour of the world and its architectural and archeological highlights as of 1926. I’ll start off with four horizontal cards, three of which show sites in Asia.
These come much closer to substituting for travel as the sites are described both in their physical appearance as well as their history and usage. They’re “Wonders of the Past” because they were used in the past and remain fantastically impressive structures today.
I really love the worldwide breadth of this set. Yes there are still missing spots. The Maya stele is the only North American card.* Easter Island is as close as we get to South America.** And while Egypt has a bunch of cards there’s nothing from sub-saharan Africa.***
*No Chichen Itza or Tenochtitlan. No Mesa Verde.
**No Machu Picchu.
***No Timbuktu or Djenné.
As much as the “missing” subjects would look fantastic, it’s great to see so many cards from so many different Asian countries. Multiple cards from Japan, China, Jordan, India, Cambodia, Iran, and more really give the set a lot of life and variety.
There are a bunch of Greek/Roman and Egyptian cards too. I didn’t scan a bunch of those but I do love the Forum card with the birds and the way it’s lit with half the image in shadow. The Tutankhamen card meanwhile is super-topical since his Howard Carter had only opened his tomb three years earlier.
I appreciate that the backs continue to focus on the objects and not the westerners who discovered them. It would’ve been easy to make the back to the Tutankhamen be all about Carter. I also like how they offer information about similar structures and explain that many of these highlights are not one-off artifacts.
The other fun part of a set like this is getting cards of places I’ve actually been to. I haven’t travelled as much as I’d like but here are three cards which cover three of the places I saw when I was in Spain. The Aqueduct in Segovia even has a bunch of people enjoying themselves just like they were when I was there.
The Mezquita and Alhambra meanwhile are much more empty than I experienced. All three cards are fun to look at and remind me of my trip.
I especially love the Mezquita back and how it talks about “Christian defacements” in turning it into a cathedral. Truth be told, the way that building is so many different things and manages to wear its history as part of its very structure is my favorite thing about it.
Wow. I ended up scanning more cards for this set than I planned to. There’s so much variety though that I kind of had to. Is it my favorite pre-war set? No that’s still the Romance of the Heavens. But this is pretty close both in terms of its artwork and how it captures a point in time in the world’s understanding of itself.