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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

She stared at me, provocatively, her diaphanous gown hanging brazenly over one shoulder. My 12-year-old heart pounded. Her name was Auralia. She was beautiful, and she was mine. I had coveted her for months, but before I could touch her, I had a slight problem.

Alongside her, eyes staring fixedly, was Juan, a robust Spaniard, an adventurer. Though foppishly dressed, the hand on the hilt of his sword said he meant business. Behind him, Vitus, a white-bearded man, watched the proceedings. But these two gentlemen weren't the only problems. It was Edward, Albert and Charles, all present in multicolored hues on their own cigar boxes, who blocked my way. Moroever, there were boxes with a racehorse, a yellow cab and the covered wagon that shielded Auralia from my adolescent ardor.

A childhood nightmare? A Fellini film?

Nothing so bizarre. The year was 1952, and these piles of empty, wooden cigar boxes were the beginning of a lifelong love affair with cigars and the labels used to sell them. Auralia, Juan de Fuca, Vitus Bering, King Edward, King Albert, Charles the Great, Yellow Cab, Covered Wagon and racehorses by the dozens were among a collection of tens of thousands of boxes and labels. Each provided a small window into a part of history that is now almost lost. But even today, you can see the reproductions of box labels in many prominent, big-selling brands.

But the real story lies even further back in American history. "I wonder how many different brands there are," I thought as an innocent child. This led me to countless cigar factories, box makers, printers, libraries, museums, historical societies and old-timers' parlors. There, the stories were told in a vocabulary long forgotten. Ultimately, the search for the story of cigar labels and boxes led to the Civil War and the birth of modern packaging and advertising.

Desperate to raise wartime revenue, a beleaguered President Lincoln imposed taxes on a long list of 19th-century "luxuries," including soap, perfume, playing cards, photographs, bank checks and patent medicine. In 1863, he also called for a tax on alcohol and tobacco. But, it is one thing to impose a tax, quite another to collect it. In two previous wars the government tried to tax alcohol and tobacco, but failed in the face of widespread evasion.

The government finally took its tax collection seriously, closing loophole after loophole, making evasion ever-more difficult. It was the first in a series of efforts that would make alcohol and tobacco the most regulated products in America. A series of oppressive laws (which controlled the entire manufacturing process) monitored leaf tobacco so tightly that cigar makers were required to file government forms before carrying leaf from one room to another.

Prior to the Civil War, few cigars were packed in boxes. Even in Cuba, most cigars were sold singly, by the handful or in small wrapped bundles called yaguas, made from palm fronds. In this country, cigars were typically shipped in barrels of 2,500 or more. Overworked revenue agents, faced with counting individual cigars in a factory, found it impossible to keep track of the movement of taxed and untaxed cigars. "They all look alike," one harried agent complained to Congress.

The Revenue Act of 1864 tried to solve the problem by requiring all cigars to be packed in "boxes or bundles," but feisty cigar makers harassed inspectors with odd lots, turning record keeping into a nightmare. With Lincoln's strong support, the laws of 1865 resolved the problem of counting by requiring all cigars, foreign or domestic, to be packed in wooden boxes containing 25, 50, 100 or 250 cigars, giving IRS agents somewhere to paste a stamp proving taxes had been paid. By the end of the war, cigar boxes were everywhere: the federal solution to a very taxing problem.

Even the most far-thinking visionary in the chaw-chewing 1860s could not have foreseen that within a few years superb, new cigar tobaccos would be developed, cost-cutting cigar molds would be introduced from Germany (then the cigar-manufacturing capital of the world), exorbitant Civil War taxes, which made a five-cent cigar cost 12 cents, would be lifted and a huge, immigrant labor force would arrive eager for work.

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