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The Art of Cigar Boxes

Four-Square Masterpieces Cigar-Box Labels Once Served as the Ultimate Image Makers for a Good Smoke
Tony Hyman
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 1)

With those changes in the 1870s and 1880s, domestic cigars became better, cheaper and more available, and for the next 50 years, cigars replaced the plug as the most popular form of tobacco use in America.

By 1900, four out of five men (and a goodly number of women and children) smoked cigars, and cigar connoisseurship had become an art. Dozens of distinct domestic tobaccos were blended with tobaccos from Cuba and Sumatra and rolled into more than 3,500 shapes and sizes--ready "for every occasion, purpose and time of day." About 150,000 cigar factories flooded the country with a bewildering array of product. Between 1870 and 1920, more than 1.5 million brands of U.S. cigars appeared and disappeared on the market. More than 250 billion cigars were manufactured. And the law said they all had to be packed in boxes.

At first, cigar boxes sat closed on shelves behind the bar or counter, with only the simplest markings to identify the contents. But as the cigar industry became more competitive, the humidified cigar counter was developed to allow the new varieties, shapes and colors of cigars to be displayed without drying out. Colorful inside labels became essential to make a brand stand out among a sea of rather similar-looking competitors.

Cigars were unique among American retail products because everyone had a finger in the advertising pie. Cigar makers labeled cigars in accordance with their own tastes, but any wholesaler with a big order could get the same cigar packed in a different box with a different label, any saloon or drugstore that bought as few as 10 boxes could have the cigars reboxed under yet another label. With fancy labels costing only a penny or two, even customers could easily order "custom" brands emblazoned with their children, dog or favorite boat. As a result, there were more brands of cigar than any other product in history. During the height of cigar popularity, a small-town drugstore was forced to carry as many as 350 brands to keep its clientele happy.

For example, the 60 hand-rollers at the Powell & Goldstein factory (1870-1926) in Oneida, New York, made only two cigars: a five-center they sold as Factory 370 and a popular 10-center called Napoleon. Although they made just two cigars, they (like many other factories) were responsible for hundreds of brands. For more than 50 years, Powell & Goldstein's five salesmen covered every town within a day's ride of the Erie Canal. They created "custom brands" of cigars for hotels, restaurants, barbershops, train stations, social clubs--even haberdashers and shoe-shine parlors. The same cigar was sold side by side under multiple labels depicting well-dressed dandies, children at play, Masonic temples, white elephants and the mustached proprietor of a Buffalo pool hall--each trying to catch the eye of a smoker with a dime in his hand.

And catch his eye they did. Cigar labels were spectacular: full of colorful flags, eagles and naked women...showing off dogs, guns and fast horses. Ballplayers, actors, vaudevillians, opera stars and popular comic-strip characters were immortalized as were local heroes, civil servants and saloon keepers.

Labels depicted the high life, gambling, racial stereotypes, popular paintings, regional railroads, automobiles, inventions, political candidates, famous generals and women by the carload, generally staring virtuously into space. Labels featured lightbulbs, gas meters, wireless, the transatlantic cable, talking machines, radios and the Model T. Each new product or trend, new feat or event made it onto a label.

Brand loyalty was not the rule--advertising and national distribution were still far in the future--and new brands and labels were created almost haphazardly by today's standards. Big cigar companies ordered fancy labels in lots of 100,000 or more, but press runs of simple one-and-two-color labels were often as small as 1,000 to fill orders from one-man factories, which produced only five or six boxes of cigars a day and changed brands frequently. Stock pictorial labels would be printed in large lots with no brand name, ready for the end user to add the appellation of his choice. The same cigar-label girl could be "Daisy" in Dubuque, "Dora" in Kansas City, "Donna" in Des Moines or "Ermintrude" in Boston.

Yet the process wasn't as simple as this proliferation of brands and labels makes it seem. The monthlong effort started with an idea or crude sketch from the customer or the art-department staff. This was turned into a more-polished pencil drawing, which, when approved, was followed by a watercolor done by the art department, although printers sometimes hired free-lance artists. The painting was then sent to the lithographic department, where a specialist created a key line drawing, a black-and-white interpretation resembling a paint-by-numbers diagram. Staff lithographic artists then translated the drawings onto lithographer's limestone with grease pencil.

Better labels were printed in 12 colors, each requiring a separate press run. After 1890, additional runs were required for embossing and gilding (done with a bronze powder and shoe-shine-type buff wheel). Proofs were run, adjustments made and finally the label approved for printing. If the label was one of the tens of thousands created on speculation by the printing company, it was then bound into sample books.


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