The Art of Cigar Boxes
Four-Square Masterpieces Cigar-Box Labels Once Served as the Ultimate Image Makers for a Good Smoke
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94
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Most printers issued hardcover, label-sample books annually, with periodic supplements, usually 10 to 16-page stapled booklets. Sample labels were mailed to potential customers, including cigar makers, box makers and major wholesalers. No one knows how big the mailing lists of these printers were or how many of each sample label were printed. Although printer's representatives maintained offices in bigger cities and traveled to cigar-making centers like Pennsylvania's Lancaster Valley, the majority of sales were handled by mail, telephone, telegraph or through local box companies.
With 40 percent of the country's entire 1890 cigar output manufactured in three square miles of tenement factories on the
Lower East Side of New York, it is no surprise that nearly all important label printers were located in that neighborhood. The best were run by German immigrants including George Schlegel, O. L. Schwenke, Schmidt & Co., Witsch & Schmitt, Schumacher & Ettlinger and F. Heppenheimers Sons in lower Manhattan and Moehle Litho in Brooklyn. Drop-in traffic was substantial because three of the printers could be found in a single block on Pearl Street; the others were a short walk away.
Those seven companies, plus Philadelphia's George Harris & Sons, accounted for roughly 80 percent of the cigar labels used in this country. Their cigar labels have been hailed by scholars as the highest-quality commercial printing in history.
Although these New York houses supplied most labels, wherever cigar factories were found, regional cigar-box makers and label printers helped accommodate local needs. San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago were all home to lesser label companies, but the most prolific of the "second line" printers was founded in 1883 in Elmira, then the center of New York's tobacco-growing region. Serving more than 10,000 cigar factories in western New York and Pennsylvania, F.M. Howell & Co. offered thousands of inexpensive stock labels during its long history. Although Howell quit producing cigar labels in the 1920s, the company still prints and creates packaging for other industries, the only one of the great nineteenth-century printers still owned by the original family.
The coming of photoengraving and four-color presses coincided with the introduction of modern cigar-making machinery and the closing of fully 80 percent of the American cigar factories in less than a decade. After 1920, labels became less interesting, less varied and, thanks to the cigarette, less plentiful. As factories closed, the remaining stocks of their labels were usually burned. Today, nothing remains of the nineteenth-century cigar factories and label printers except relatively few samples of their work, saved by customers or employees.
Label collectors owe a debt of gratitude to one enterprising collector who became a legend in the 1970s for his city-by-city, block-by-block search for old cigar factories. Aided by turn-of-the-century city directories,Mark Trout spent nine months of the year traveling in his van, locating old buildings, contacting owners and rummaging dusty attics and basements. He single-handedly salvaged millions of labels that would otherwise have been lost.
Because of Trout's (and other label pioneers') diligence, today's art lovers have the opportunity to enjoy the fun of collecting Golden Age labels on and off boxes. Yet Trout didn't find them all. The U.S. cigar industry was of such staggering size, that fine boxes, labels, sample books and even original art continue to be discovered. Most labels are modestly priced from $10 to $25, although the very best and rarest can command more than $350 each.
Collecting cigar-related artifacts is a rapidly growing hobby,and wise investors are snapping up boxes, labels, cutters, lighters and other relics. Boxes and labels once displayed in elegant panoramas designed to entice your dimes and quarters are now recognized as the first, finest and most varied point-of-sale advertising in history. Collectors love the unsurpassed skill and imagination resulting from the free-for-all competition that marked the domestic cigar's Golden Age. Folks who have never enjoyed lighting their cigars while viewing 300 glorious labels all at once don't know what they're missing.
Cigar-industry historian Tony Hyman is the author of the Handbook of American Cigar Labels (available through Tobacciana Research and Resources, P. O. Box 3028, Pismo Beach, Calif. 93448).