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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 2)

Those are the more prevalent stories. Which do you believe? French police officers say chercher le femme [look for the woman], but accountants everywhere advise "follow the dollars." As best we can tell, sex doesn't seem to be involved in the creation of bands, cleanliness ranks low in motivation and cigar smokers seldom left a trail of unraveling leaf. If you are in business or just someone who believes the ancient adage that "money talks," your choice is an obvious one.

Not only did money talk, but consumers clearly wanted bands on their cigars. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the center of cigar production shift to the United States with its thousands of small factories and annual production figures in the billions. Since most U.S.-made cigars were of relatively low quality and competing for nickels in local markets, their makers saw little benefit in spending extra money to advertise with a band.

However, by 1900, four of every five American men smoked cigars, and brand competition was fierce. Printing costs had been reduced, and attractive custom bands were priced at an irresistible 70 cents per thousand--2 billion bands were sold that year in the United States alone. Catalogs contained hundreds of stock choices, so generic bands could appear on dozens of different cigars at an even lower cost. Even inexpensive cigars could afford lovely, full-color bands such as those sported by Tansil's New York City knockoff of the classic Cuban Punch.

European bands were typically sold as part of a matching set including inner and outer box labels, edging, top brand, flaps and band--all marketed and sold as a package. The more individualistic U.S. cigar makers chose each element of their packages, sometimes buying labels, bands, flaps, inner paper and edging from five printers.

Bands arrived cut to shape and wrapped in thread-tied bundles of 100. Before bands were applied (almost always by women) cigars were rolled, aged, selected, packed, pressed in boxes and then removed for banding and reboxed. Traditionally bands were put on by hand, secured with a dab of plant-based glue, which the worker delicately applied with the tip of her third finger. (The operation hasn't changed much to this day.) This operation is not as simple as it sounds because bands must be put at the same height on each cigar and the glue must not ooze out, causing the band to attach itself to the cigar and risking damage to the wrapper when removed. In cigar states like New York and Pennsylvania, children were usually hired after school for the less demanding job of packaging cigars in foil, cellophane or tubes.

With 2 billion bands a year deposited in ashtrays, dropped on floors or left on cigars which were later tossed into gutters, it's no wonder that collecting bands became a turn-of-the-century mania. Cigar companies sold complete sets of colorful new bands for a dime. Albums to hold them were given away by promotion-minded tobacconists and shopkeepers.

In its drive to smash competition, the American Cigar Co. offered premiums in exchange for bands. Its huge, illustrated 1904 catalog included nearly everything a homemaker could desire. A set of children's silverware or four-collar buttons could be had for collecting a mere 50 bands. Amass an additional 179,950, and a baby grand piano would be delivered to your door. You could sleep in a four-piece bedroom set made of bird's-eye maple for a mere 44,000 bands, ride in a rubber-tired surrey for only 32,000 and kick your own football for a paltry 1,200. If the mechanical wonders of the modern age were your forte, a year's subscription to Scientific American was a scant 600. For purposes of redemption, cigar bands from American's 28 brands of cigars could be mixed with the tin tags from the company's chewing tobacco as well as paper coupons from smoking tobacco and cigarettes.

"I can remember going for walks with Mom when I was around six years old," says Carl Eike, now retired in Tucson, Arizona. "She would hang onto my hand so hard it would turn white, because every time she'd let go, I'd dive into the gutter for another cigar band off a butt." Tales like this leave little doubt as to how turn-of-the-century children earned the sobriquet "guttersnipe" as they searched for the 150 bands needed to claim a baseball glove at one of the more than 20 redemption centers located from coast to coast.

Bands that weren't turned in were often pasted on. The art of decoupage with bands reached its zenith in the first decade of this century. Magazines published tips on covering ashtrays, vases and other objects with decoratively placed bands. Truly ambitious hobbyists spent weeks carefully covering chairs, desks and even dining-room tables with arrangements of matched bands.

All this came to an end as tens of thousands of cigar companies rolled their last leaves in the 1920s and '30s. Demand and competition declined, the variety of cigar brands dropped dramatically and interest in bands began to wane.

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