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From Cigars to Tammany Hall

Bruce Goldman
Posted: August 12, 2005
A sterling silver desktop humidor once belonging to Alfred E. Smith, a four-time governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for president in 1928, is now on display at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. The humidor is part of a small exhibit -- running through September 11 -- that is dedicated to Smith, a voracious cigar smoker who was known to light up a dozen cigars a day.

The cigar box, made by Tiffany & Co. and presented as a gift to Smith in 1930 by newspaper publisher Paul Block, contains 171 troy ounces of silver and weighs nearly 12 pounds. Resembling a medieval ironbound casket, the hand-etched, hand-engraved humidor took at least four artisans more than 104 hours to craft. It was made in Tiffany's "Moresque" style, with patterns based on Islamic architecture and ornaments. The interior is lined with cedar and contains two dividers.

Inside the lid, an engraved plaque titled "Welcome Home, Governor Smith" and containing a passage from a newspaper editorial pays tribute to Smith's integrity and leadership as one of New York's most beloved politicians. The inscription, from the Brooklyn Standard-Union's November 2, 1928, issue following the Democrat's defeat to Herbert Hoover, refers in part to the many hardships Smith overcame in his youth and to "his every effort to alleviate the hardships of others."

The humidor, purchased by the Historical Society last November from the Dallas Auction Gallery for $24,000, and which will remain on display after the exhibit closes, is accompanied in the exhibit by a blueprint of the box, a kerchief from the 1928 campaign, a graphite sketch of Smith smoking a cigar, sheet music for the song "The Sidewalks of New York" -- an 1890s tune adapted with eight "special campaign choruses" that predicted an easy victory -- and various political buttons showcasing Smith and his running mate, Arkansas Sen. Joseph Taylor Robinson.

Smith's "easy victory" never materialized. While he was immensely popular in his own state, his Irish Catholic background, ties to the machine politics of Tammany Hall, his opposition to Prohibition (a moderate social drinker, he would serve highballs during the '20s) and even his New York accent didn't play well in many areas of the country. He had to endure one of the most mean-spirited presidential campaigns ever and lost resoundingly to Hoover, who, in riding a wave of American economic prosperity, captured all but eight of the 48 states, and 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87. Even in his home state, in spite of New York City's overwhelming support, Smith went down to defeat.

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Smith won election to the state Assembly in 1903, and voters returned him to office through 1915. Subsequently, he was elected New York county sheriff and president of the city's Board of Aldermen. He captured the governorship in 1918 and, following a loss in 1920, was reelected in 1922, 1924 and 1926. As governor, Smith championed such causes as better working conditions in factories, laws regulating child labor, the creation of state parks and improved care for the mentally ill. In 1924, he made an unsuccessful bid for the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination. Following his retirement from politics after the 1928 election, he served as president of the corporation that operated the Empire State Building.

Smith's ardent love of cigars began early and lasted his entire life. As noted by Christopher M. Finan in his biography Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior, Smith, who had only a grade-school education, began smoking them after he got his first full-time job, at the age of 15. It's likely some of those cigars would have been smoked during his frequent visits to saloons, which served then as one of the centers of social life in New York City.

Photo Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
An early portrait of him as an assemblyman shows him in top hat and tails with a cigar stuck in his mouth, and by the mid-1910s, he had firmly established his trademark look of a derby hat and stogie. Eventually, when he could afford them, he would typically smoke as many as 12 to 15 cigars per day.

Machine politics in the early twentieth century provided ample opportunities for Smith to indulge his habit. As a member of the Seymour Club, one of New York's political clubs, he would have had access to the smoking and conversation room at the Madison Avenue headquarters, just three doors down from the apartment where Smith and his new bride, Katie, settled in after their marriage in 1900. And in his early days in the Assembly, he was "expected to be one of the boys, go along and hit the cuspidor with a cigar butt and just be one of the jolly fellows from downtown who took their orders from…the [Tammany] bosses," as ex-New York Gov. Hugh Carey observed in Robert A. Slayton's Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.

Naturally, he had a cigar on hand at the governor's mansion in Albany on June 28, 1928, when the Democrats gathered in Houston to nominate their candidate for president. (Back then, it was customary for prospective presidential nominees not to attend the convention.) And fifteen years later, for his 70th birthday, he received many boxes of cigars, though by that time he had been smoking less due to health considerations. As Finan recounts, Smith candidly admitted, "The doctor said three a day, but I amended that and made it four, and then I always sneak one, so that's five."

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