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Making The Cut: Cigar Cutters

Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97


"[Count Mippipopolous] took out a heavy pigskin cigar-case.... He cut off the end of his cigar with a gold cutter he wore on the end of his watch-chain. 'I like a cigar to really draw,' said the count. 'Half the cigars you smoke don't draw.'"

--Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

They dangled from watch-chains that stretched across the ample vests of prosperous gentlemen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; they snuggled in the pockets of average Joes. They promoted products as diverse as tobacco and sparkling water, or extolled the sights from Washington, D.C., to St. Paul, Minnesota. They came in such shapes as ballerinas, willowy Art Nouveau damsels, dachshunds and collies, pistols, shoes, champagne bottles, a sailing ship's wheel, a medieval helmet and a pot-bellied pig. They sat beside the cash registers in cigar stores. They remain mute yet artful reminders of a bygone age. And they all had one elegantly simple, utilitarian purpose in common: to cut the head of a cigar cleanly for an expectant smoker.

Cigar cutters, made of precious metals, steel, iron, tin or wood, once were the ubiquitous accessory of every smoker or tobacconist in an era when 70 to 90 percent of adult males puffed on cigars. Yet, like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale, they largely were hidden out in the open, often unseen in plain view. In the vast literature on cigars and smoking, little has been written about them. They have their devotees--collectors with canny eyes capable of seeing that a seemingly innocuous trinket or statuette really was made to clip cigars--but few scholars have concentrated on their origin and history.

Benjamin Rapaport, a world-class accumulator of smoking memorabilia and an acquaintance of collectors all over the globe, says that until recently, he didn't know of anyone who had done serious scholarly work on cigar cutters. Rapaport, a communications engineer who lives in Reston, Virginia, calls cigar cutters "an elusive collectible" and the study of them "a very amorphous area of expertise." He has assembled the largest private collection of tobacco and smoking-related literature in the United States (visitors are welcome to peruse his 5,000 books and 13 linear feet of files on the subject)--and all he has ever seen have been "a few lines" about cutters in assorted tracts on cigars and smoking.

Yet the realm of antique cigar cutters may now become "a whole new world" for collectors to explore, Rapaport says, "given the phenomenon of cigars today."

In part this may also be due to a new book on the subject, Antique Cigar Cutters and Lighters, by Jerry Terranova and Douglas Congdon-Martin (Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pennsylvania, $69.95). Long before Terranova and Congdon-Martin's groundbreaking, photo-filled book, however, some trailblazers already had forged a path into this unexplored region.

One such collector is Howard J. Thomas, 69, a semiretired attorney in Silver Spring, Maryland, whose treasure trove of some 600 cigar cutters--many over a century old--is one of the largest ever assembled. (Told the size of Thomas' collection, the curator of the Museum of Tobacco Art and History in Nashville had an initial, one-word comment: "Wow!")

"It just amazes me that there is so little information about cigar cutters," says Thomas, who for some 30 years has been scouring flea markets and antiques stores for cutters and other cigar memorabilia. "It's a fun, interesting hobby. You don't find too many [cutters] around, so you have to hunt for them. And, of course, I use them," he says, to cut off the ends of his Arturo Fuentes.

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