Making The Cut: Cigar Cutters

| By Neil A. Grauer | From 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.

When visiting a flea market, antiques store or fair, Thomas says he looks "in almost every stall, but the smaller [stalls] generally have a small box with a glass top. [Cutters] usually are in there because the pocket ones were so small. They come in so many unusual shapes and forms that many a time you may see one and not know that it was a cigar cutter. The trick is in seeing and recognizing what you've got."

To identify a cutter, says Thomas, "first look to see if there's a round opening somewhere" in the little trinket--an aperture into which the head of a cigar could be inserted. "Then look to see if it has something that could cut the tip of a cigar," such as a tiny blade, or a pin for puncturing.

"You have to use your imagination to see if what you're looking at is a cutter," he continues. "Sometimes the people selling them don't even know what they've got. It's always wise to inquire of the dealers after you've looked at everything as to whether they've got any cigar cutters. Some dealers will say, 'Oh, yes,' and show you something you didn't spot."

"It was Father Creedon. 'Oh Father. Good evening. Cigarette?' 'No thanks. Cigar for me.' The priest took a cigar from a worn, black leather case. He amputated the end of the cigar with a silver cutter."

--John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra

According to Rapaport, cigar cutters come in three basic varieties, all of which are represented in Thomas' collection: pocket-size punchers or slicers, many featuring a ring that enabled the owners to attach them to watch-chains; scissor-style clippers; and large "countertop" or combination-set models. The countertops most often were used in cigar stores; the combination sets were home accessories. Some of the cutters are whimsical; some scatological; some erotic. Few of the small ones bear any manufacturer's name or identifying date. Some are made of gold or silver; others are made of bronze; many more are made of common metals such as steel, iron or tin. Thomas says he has paid anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred for the cutters in his collection.

"As far as provenance and price range, it's caveat emptor and caveat vendor," says Rapaport.

Thomas has a copy of an advertisement sent to him some years ago by a friend, showing a bronze tabletop cigar cutter that features an Art Nouveau sculpture of a seminude woman reclining on a gray-and-black marble slab, her legs parted provocatively. The cutter is signed by "C. Kauba," identified in the undated ad as an American sculptor who lived from 1865 to 1922. The asking price for this gem was $2,500. (Thomas didn't bite.)

Many weekends, Thomas and his wife, Betty, a collector of antique dolls, head to flea markets and collectibles shops in the Washington, D.C., area, including suburban Maryland and Virginia. One of Thomas' favorite venues for unearthing antique cigar cutters is much farther north, at the renowned Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show, near Old Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Brimfield's has been a happy hunting ground for collectors and dealers since 1959. Held three times a year, the show hosts about 4,000 dealers who offer a cornucopia of antiques, collectibles and assorted paraphernalia. The East Coast is an especially rich field for the seekers of such items.

Thomas keeps most of his cutters in an antique cabinet in which a tailor or dressmaker once stored spools of thread. From its neat rows he can produce an astonishing and absorbing variety of cutters, including the figure of a little girl on a chamberpot, a can-can dancer and a tiny tennis player--all of which feature movable parts that can effectively cut the small, tapered tip of the kind of cigar most popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A sinuous Art Nouveau lady is stamped with the date "2-2-95" (surely that isn't 1995); a bottle opener that doubles as a cutter promotes "Virginia Natural Water Carbonated Ginger Ale" and is dated "10-12-09."

Thomas also has a wide variety of tabletop cutters, which he keeps on the shelves and bookcases around his suburban home. Some of the cutters were used as advertising accessories, especially for cigar makers and merchants, and some were part of elegant companion sets that also featured a cigar container, matches and an ashtray. These were the sort of accoutrements a prosperous individual would have had sitting beside his brandy or Port.

Among Thomas' advertising items are a dachshund whose tail can be lifted and lowered to slice the end of a cigar. The cutter proclaims that "Paraflint Chatfield's Permanent Roofing Lasts Longer." Stallman and Son of York, Pennsylvania, makers of "Clark, the Popular 5-cent Cigar," and Grammers and Ullrich Reliable Cigars in Chicago had their names embossed on large, spring-loaded tabletop models; after being wound, these cutters, with a wicked chop, would automatically clip the tip of an inserted cigar.

These point-of-purchase, advertising-embossed cutters often featured a small kerosene lamp. Cigar store patrons could clip their cigar, put a proffered wick in the lamp's flame, light up their smoke and go on their way, says Allan Katz, owner of Allan Katz Americana gallery in Woodbridge, Connecticut.

The second volume of the Antique Advertising Encyclopedia, published in 1985 by veteran dealer Ray Klug, featured eight pages of photographs depicting such cutters. A guide in the back of the book gave suggested prices ranging from $200 to $3,500. The new book by Terranova and Congdon-Martin provides a more up-to-date price guide to these and other cutters.

"With the deliberation of a diamond-cutter, Groucho bit the end off his cigar and, applying a match, exhaled a jet of smoke."

--S.J. Perelman, Show magazine

Human teeth, most likely the oldest form of cigar cutter, are still deemed de rigueur by some and déclassé by others. In Alfred H. Dunhill's elegant little 1954 volume, The Gentle Art of Smoking, he observed without comment: "In the United States it is customary to bite off the end of green (or fresh) cigars."

In The Connoisseur's Book of the Cigar, Zino Davidoff noted that while American smokers "in general, use a cutter," others--"not the most sophisticated," he sniffed--"chew off the end." This procedure, Davidoff wrote, "does not permit much precision. I realize that some smokers are past masters of this technique, but I never practice or recommend such a method."

Curiously, Dunhill and Davidoff unwittingly disparage the means by which the greatest cigar smoker of the twentieth century--Winston Churchill--prepared his cigars for lighting: a quick thrust with a piercer. As William Manchester described in the first volume of his biography of Churchill (and as recounted in the Autumn 1995 issue of Cigar Aficionado), Sir Winston liked to wet the end of his cigar and puncture it with a long wooden match. Then he would blow through the cigar from the other end to ensure that it would draw.

Evidently unaware of (or in dispute with) Churchill's habits, Dunhill warned that while piercing a cigar head exposes the minimum amount of filler and thus helps the wrapper to keep tobacco tar away from the tongue, "the smoke and moisture concentrate in one narrow passage and may result in a bad draw." He also considered it "unwise to blow through a cigar in order to remove particles of broken leaf, because this injects moisture from the breath."

To Davidoff's mind, a lance would "savagely pierce the delicate head of the cigar, thereby creating a useless funnel for an excess of heat, tar-filled smoke, and a bitter taste." Davidoff also was adamant on another point: "Cigar cutters are fine, but not the penknife."

"[The murderer] smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar holder, and carries a blunt penknife in his pocket.... I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enabled me to pronounce as an Indian cigar.... Having found the ash, I then looked round and discovered the stump among the moss where he had tossed it. It was an Indian cigar, of the variety which are rolled in Rotterdam.... I could see that the end had not been in his mouth. Therefore he used a holder. The tip had been cut off, not bitten off, but the cut was not a clean one, so I deduced a blunt penknife."

--"The Boscombe Valley Mystery," The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William S. Baring Gould, editor

Many of the antique cutters in Howard Thomas' collection not only are tiny enough to fit in a vest or pants pocket without causing a bulge, but the holes they have for the cigar head are small as well. David Wright, curator of the Museum of Tobacco Art and History, says that nineteenth century cigars "were mostly tapered, and that's the reason the [cutters were] small. The cigars [themselves] were smaller. This idea of having a big cigar is more of a twentieth century phenomenon."

Wright notes that the museum (funded by the United States Tobacco Manufacturing Co., the parent company of United States Tobacco International), is the only repository of its kind in North America. Of the nearly 1,500 tobacco-related items in the museum's private collection--of which some 1,000 are on display--only six are cigar cutters. Among them are an impressive figure of a reclining lion--"a beautiful piece about six inches in length, made of brass"--a small, gold "finger guillotine" and a miniature shoe that holds matches in its toe and contains a cutter in its heel.

"It's interesting to see the different variations and styles," Wright says. "When you get into tabletop variations, where you have a whole piece devoted to not just the cutter but [also] a cigar holder, match holder and ashtray, that's a nice statement, because the themes of most of these companion sets are just typical slices of Victorian life. And a lot of them tend to be humorous themes. It's really fun."

Wright says that the museum has one such companion set that is approximately 12 inches high and 14 inches long, featuring a container that holds up to 20 cigars, a holder for a matchbox, a cigar cutter with an ashtray underneath it--all in brass--plus the figure of a man holding a candlestick. "It's just a nice Victorian piece, heavy into decoration on the sides."

Wright's advice for would-be collectors: "Go for variety. Look for condition. Any damage to the piece detracts from its future appreciation value. If it is gold, see that the gold is not worn down to the base metal. If it is tin, look to see that it has not been repaired. If it is wood, look to see that no part is broken.

"Make sure all the parts [of the cutter] are in place, that nothing's missing. If it has been painted, you want the paint to be in fine condition. If it has been repaired, pass it up. If it is metal and has been dropped, dented or banged around, you don't want it. It should be in fine working order."

"Don't Bite Me, Just Light Me, I've Got A Hole in My Head."

--Slogan for Caton Cigars, manufactured by Jacob F. Obrecht Tobacco Co., Baltimore, 1920s

With the arrival of machine-made cigars that were pre-perforated for the customer's convenience, cigar cutters became essential only for connoisseurs of the finer, handmade cigars. Baltimore, once home to nearly 60 cigar factories and dozens of tobacconists, had manufacturers and purveyors of both. At the city's century-old cigar store, Fader's, third-generation owner Ira B. "Bill" Fader Jr. has a few cigar cutter artifacts from the days when his grandfather Abraham had 80 employees hand-rolling cigars. One is an early 1900s combination match dispenser and cutter made of cast iron, with the Fader name prominently displayed on the lid. Push down the cutter arm and a wooden match pops up. Another is a cutter that sat by the cash register and could accommodate three different-sized cigars. Insert a cigar in the appropriate hole, depress a lever and the cigar is neatly clipped. The slogan this cutter sports is for the Fader-made Iraba, "the GOOD cigar." (The "Iraba" was named for Bill's father, Ira B. Sr.)

As does any full-service tobacco and cigar store, Fader's offers a wide variety of modern cutters. They range in price from $1.95 for the simplest plastic-and-steel, handheld guillotines to $53 for a stainless steel, German-made cigar scissors, $310 for a Macassar lacquered guillotine from S.T. Dupont of Paris and $380 for a circular, gold-plated cutter from Alfred Dunhill.

"[Gabriel Syme] took the cigar, clipped the end off with a cigar cutter out of his waistcoat pocket, put it in his mouth, lit it slowly, and let out a long cloud of smoke. It is not little to his credit that he performed these rites with so much composure."

--G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

"In the art of smoking there is no harder trick to learn than cutting the tip of a cigar," contends Cuban-born writer G. Cabrera Infante, whose book Holy Smoke (Harper & Row, New York, 1985) is a 329-page compendium of historical, cinematic and literary lore about smoking and cigars that contains many of the quotations cited in this article.

In The Connoisseur's Book of the Cigar, Zino Davidoff observed diplomatically that no single method of cutting a cigar is preferable to another. One can pinch the cigar head, and if "the fingernail is long and sharp enough, a simple slit...can be made in the wrapper," he wrote. He advised that the "cut made with the nail should not be too wide or too deep," and suggested wetting the end of the cigar if it is a little dry in order to facilitate this method.

Coming to the apparently necessary defense of those whose use of a cigar cutter was considered effete, Davidoff wrote: "Despite the opinion of some, it is not shameful to use such an instrument, especially if it has been well-chosen. Ordinary cigar cutters, which make a round or beveled cut, are not to be condemned."

Sometimes, Davidoff warned, "you must watch that the cut is not made too deeply. Do not forget that the beveled cut produces more drawing surface than the superficial circle opening." Regardless of method, he wrote, the key was that the "opening should be small, reasonable, in proportion to the cigar, and made so that an appropriate amount of smoke will be produced. The opening ought to be clean."

Alfred Dunhill advised in The Gentle Art of Smoking that while there are many ways of piercing a cigar, much "depends on the condition of the cigar." He noted: "When handling mature cigars, some smokers crack open the end by squeezing it between the finger and thumb, but unless the cigar is in excellent condition and the butt perfectly made, this can be disastrous.

"Perhaps the most satisfactory method," Dunhill wrote, "is a clean-shaped cut made by a cigar cutter, because this ensures the removal of broken leaf and provides a passage for the smoke that does not concentrate all of it upon a small area of the tongue." He suggested that tapered cigars with a pointed head should be cut "with a straight cutter or turned against the blade of a sharp knife and cut straight across." In the end, Dunhill conceded, "Some experts like to prepare cigars of every shape in the same way."

The point, as Count Mippipopolous told Hemingway's hero Jake Barnes, is that after all is said, done and clipped, the cigar should "really draw."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).