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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

Sit back, light up your favorite smoke and consider, perhaps for the first time, the lowly band that encircles your cigar. A simple paper ring of no consequence to you... something to be discarded without thought. Yet for some it is an object of great debate, its origin shrouded in mystery and romance.

Cubans approach the history of cigars with the intensity that New Yorkers reserve for following baseball or the stock market. At a recent conference in Havana, four speakers argued fine points of the history of bands, labels and marketing. One, Orlando Arteaga, president of the Havana Vitofilic (cigar band) Society regaled the crowd with the most popular of these conflicting legends.

It's not just the stuff of legends that occupies cigar smokers. Many are avid collectors of cigar bands; some search out the historical, and others even hoard the bands of the cigars they smoke daily. Finally, there are few debates over etiquette that can evoke more vehement opinions than whether or not the band should remain on the cigar while it's being smoked. But each element of debate or discussion only fuels more conversation and are all part of the romance of the cigar.

The Chain-Smoking Russian Queen

Once upon a time--in Russia 200 years ago--lived a rather bossy queen who was known as Catherine the Great. It's said she ordered her cigars wrapped in silk to protect her royal fingers from tobacco stains. Thereafter, silken cigar rings were adopted by all in imitation of the queen. And so, the tale goes, the cigar band was born.

"Un cuento de hadas por ninos," [a fairy tale for children] says Angel Pereira Reyes, one of Cuba's prominent collector-historians, who finds no evidence that Catherine smoked Cuban or any other cigars. Yet maybe a fanatical Catherine was worried over nicotine stains (implying a rather large consumption) and maybe she did order her cigars to be wrapped in silk. But that order would have been carried out by someone in her court--not someone in Havana. Her majesty's idiosyncrasies would have had little influence on the manufacturing processes of the tiny Cuban-cigar industry 5,000 miles away.

Maybe Catherine worried over stained fingers, but it's unlikely in light of a well-documented disregard for cleanliness of body, hair and clothing among eighteenth-century royalty notorious for bathing monthly. The late nineteenth-century originator of this story apparently mistook bands for the color-coded silk ribbons used to bundle cigars into wheels, added one queen and devised a romantic but unlikely legend that credits the Russians with inventing the cigar band.

The Case of the Dirty White Gloves

England's claim to the cigar band is based on fastidious nineteenth-century dandies' horror at soiled white gloves. The idea of a proud Cuban don saying "let's spend an extra $5 per crate to put paper rings on our product so some simpering English snuff taker can keep his gloves clean" just doesn't ring true, say Cuban historians, since that would imply that Cuban cigars were leaky, dirty or chemically doctored.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Zino Davidoff wrote in The Connoisseur's Book of the Cigar (McGraw-Hill, 1969, 92 pages, $25) that nineteenth-century Spanish cigars had wrappers colored with a chicory-shaded gum, which could possibly stain the fingers of the unwary. Since Davidoff seems to be the only source of this informational tidbit, it is doubtful that the practice was widespread. Moreover, wrapper fashions changed every generation, and by the mid-nineteenth century, dark wrappers were no longer fashionable.


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