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Selling the Smokes: Vintage Cigar Ads

For More Than a Century, Cigar Ads Were Among the Best in the Business
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

Capadura Cigar trading cards from 1885 show baseball players in assorted poses. Again, these ads make a strong appeal to the common man. Baseball players were America's sporting heroes in the 1880s, and these colorful Capadura drawings show muscle men in the flashy baseball attire of the day. "A Short Stop!" hollers one image, showing a ballplayer getting his mouth bloodied, presumably by a batted ball. Another slugger has the brand name Capadura on his bat, the copy reads "Two Men out and three Men on Bases!" In a real pinch, the implication goes, Capaduras will come through.

Capadura did not go unchallenged. In what may have been the first instance of combative cigar advertising, the Imperial Cigar Manufacturer in 1885 printed on one of its trading cards the following challenge: $10,000 REWARD for a genuine CAPADURA SEGAR/Not Clear Havana Filled/DEALERS ONLY SUPPLIED. The challenge implies that the Capaduras--far from being made of the finest tobacco--are impostors. The challenge was printed in the same stark fashion reserved for criminal "Wanted" posters in post offices.

While smokes like Capaduras, Durhams and Bruisers clearly speak to the common man, other cigars made their pitch to different classes.

"Smoke Housekeeper Cigars" shouts one 1885 ad. The housekeeper is a voluptuous woman in a low-cut dress who graces the center of the ad. Images to the right and left show her pinning a flower to a man's lapel and stooping provocatively to light his cigar. The message is unmistakably sexual; the buxom housekeeper, like the cigar by that name, caters to your pleasure. This was a "show card" ad. Like cigar box labels, show cards were point-of-purchase items, resting on store counters or hanging on the wall. "The challenge to the designer was to create something that would stand out," Grossman says.

Another brand that called out to men of leisure was the Elkton Bouquet cigar. An 1896 cigar box label showed 10 men in formal wear relaxing after dinner. Some drink Champagne, others smoke, while a box of Elktons sits opened on the dinner table. The use of "bouquet," an olfactory term, suggests that the aroma of the cigar is as pleasant as that of certain wines. "It was a fine cigar, and people smoking it are upper class or aspire to be," Grossman says.

Cigar manufacturers also tried to associate their products with images of progress. A locomotive labeled "The Iron Horse" appears on one cigar box label from 1885. No one is smoking and there isn't even a hint of the brand name of this cigar. But the new and powerful locomotive reminded people of progress and reliability. The price below the ad reads "$20.00 for 1000, $2.20 per 100." The cigar was made by Schumacher and Ettlinger on Bleecker Street in New York.

Ethel Barrymore and other glamorous people made appearances on cigar paraphernalia as well. "Lillian Russell was on labels and so was Queen Victoria," Grossman points out, even though Queen Victoria was staunchly opposed to cigars. A 1922 wall calendar features the Marie Antoinette cigar. "Par excellence," the copy reads. Why? Because this brand is "filled with the Vuelta Havana's Choicest Tobacco." What Cuban tobacco had to do with a decapitated queen of France is unclear.

Other ads are so odd they defy categorization. One 1905 brand name was called Rotten. "Rotten But What's in a Name?" the copy asks. We wonder: Is the taste rotten? The smell? The word "but" appears on the butt end, while the rest of the tobacco has been reduced to ash. A 1910 showcard depicts a large owl driving an open car. The brand name is Owl and the implication is that the cigar in question, like the vigilant nocturnal creature that bears its name, is a wise choice. A beautifully colored 1910 show card shows a rooster puffing a Tampa Fad. "5 cents," begins the copy. But the Tampa Fads are "worth any money," the ad continues. Another cigar box label shows a father and his son smoking Son-O-Cuba cigars, which retailed for five cents in 1911.

While more recent pitches for Dutch Masters, Roi-Tans and El Productos have graphic elements worth noting, the best cigar ads are clearly in the rear view mirror by the time 1950 arrives.

Still, the older ads resonate with meaning. As Grossman points out, illustrators and printers had to capture the flavor of the times. And advertising, every bit as much as art, introduces us to the people of an era. "Advertisers did this in an unselfconscious way," Grossman says. "Advertising is a form of art. An artist painting on the easel can get very pretentious with their own personal interpretations. Advertising is about what people really think and value."

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