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Rings Around Cigars: The Cigar Band

The Band The History and the Romance of Cigar's Paper Ring
Tony Hyman
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

Abdon Gonzales, the current director of the Instituto Investigaciones del Tabaco in Havana calls this a cuento de viejas [old wives' tale], and says that properly rolled and smoked cigars don't stain fingers. He emphasizes that his ancestors wouldn't have cared what a handful of upper-class fops on the other side of the world thought, especially since the English smoked few cigars in comparison with their prodigious intake of pipe tobacco and snuff, both more likely to stain their white gloves.

Approach the white-gloves theory from your own experience. How many smokers have you seen actually holding a cigar by the band? Compare your answer to the evidence in the world's largest archive of photos, paintings and engravings related to cigars from the 1700s to the present: hundreds of depictions of cigar smokers but nary a one with fingers wrapped around the band. Note, too, that portraits of smokers usually depict them with their gloves off while indulging in the sacred weed.

The Case of the Sloppy Cigar Maker

If you want to be lynched from the statue of José Martí, repeat the claim that bands exist to hold poorly made cigars together. If that were true, you would find more bands on cheaper cigars than on expensive ones. The writer recently cracked the seals on 30 unopened boxes of turn-of-the-century cigars and found the ratio of banded to unbanded five-cent and 10-cent cigars to be about 50/50. If cheap cigars weren't banded to begin with and the unbanded ones were still tightly wrapped after 90 years, it would be heresy to suggest that fresh Belindas and Romeo y Julietas would unravel after a few puffs if they weren't secured by a tiny paper girdle.

Doria Gonzalez Fernandez, tobacco historian for the city of Havana, observes that instructions given to banders at the Partagas factory emphasize that bands should not in any way constrict the cigar. These instructions are in keeping with tradition that bands are to be carefully removed before smoking, an act that would seriously hamper this alleged leaf-locking function.

This "disintegrating cigar" rumor may have been born in the wishful imagination of someone with a vested interest in spreading disparaging rumors about Cuban product.

Greed in Germany

As the 1800s began, the popularity of cigar smoking was in its infancy, with Germans supplying most of the cigars. Before 1830, the tiny city-state of Bremen was already importing 10 million pounds of tobacco annually, nearly all of which went into cigars, thus making Bremen the largest center of cigar production in the world. In the 1830s and '40s, half the cigars smoked in the United States and more than 90 percent of those smoked in Austria, England and Switzerland came from Germany.

Cuban cigars were regarded as the world's finest, but then, as now, they made up only a minuscule portion of the total cigar market. Even though a Cuban cigar cost 15 cents and German cigars sold for a penny, demand for Havanas far outstripped availability, and Cubans sold all the cigars they could roll. The much higher volume of cheap German cigars was of little concern to Cuban factory owners--until they discovered crates of these low-grade smokes being sold under classic Cuban-company names. The fraud was so rampant, Don Francisco Cabañas (owner and manufacturer of Cabañas cigars in Havana, a prestigious Cuban brand from 1810 until the late 1950s) estimated that "for every one of the 2 million Cuban cigars I ship to Europe, 6 million are being sold there."

Cubans give credit for the invention of the cigar band to local factory owner Gustave Bock, a European immigrant familiar with the scurrilous practices of Old World merchants. In the 1830s, Bock ordered a paper ring with his signature to be placed on every cigar intended for export. From the consumer's standpoint, Bock's bands had the added benefit of proving to one's fellows the prestigious nature of what eventually went up in smoke. Cuban archives show that by 1855, virtually all Cuban cigar makers with significant exports were banding their cigars, registering their bands with the government and advising consumers to insist on banded cigars.

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