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Rings Around Cigars: The Cigar Band

The Band The History and the Romance of Cigar's Paper Ring
| By Tony Hyman | From George Burns, Winter 94/95
Rings Around Cigars: The Cigar Band

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.

Abdon Gonzales, the current director of the Instituto Investigaciones del Tabaco in Havana calls this a cuento de viejas [old wives' tale], and says that properly rolled and smoked cigars don't stain fingers. He emphasizes that his ancestors wouldn't have cared what a handful of upper-class fops on the other side of the world thought, especially since the English smoked few cigars in comparison with their prodigious intake of pipe tobacco and snuff, both more likely to stain their white gloves.

Approach the white-gloves theory from your own experience. How many smokers have you seen actually holding a cigar by the band? Compare your answer to the evidence in the world's largest archive of photos, paintings and engravings related to cigars from the 1700s to the present: hundreds of depictions of cigar smokers but nary a one with fingers wrapped around the band. Note, too, that portraits of smokers usually depict them with their gloves off while indulging in the sacred weed.

The Case of the Sloppy Cigar Maker

If you want to be lynched from the statue of José Martí, repeat the claim that bands exist to hold poorly made cigars together. If that were true, you would find more bands on cheaper cigars than on expensive ones. The writer recently cracked the seals on 30 unopened boxes of turn-of-the-century cigars and found the ratio of banded to unbanded five-cent and 10-cent cigars to be about 50/50. If cheap cigars weren't banded to begin with and the unbanded ones were still tightly wrapped after 90 years, it would be heresy to suggest that fresh Belindas and Romeo y Julietas would unravel after a few puffs if they weren't secured by a tiny paper girdle.

Doria Gonzalez Fernandez, tobacco historian for the city of Havana, observes that instructions given to banders at the Partagas factory emphasize that bands should not in any way constrict the cigar. These instructions are in keeping with tradition that bands are to be carefully removed before smoking, an act that would seriously hamper this alleged leaf-locking function.

This "disintegrating cigar" rumor may have been born in the wishful imagination of someone with a vested interest in spreading disparaging rumors about Cuban product.

Greed in Germany

As the 1800s began, the popularity of cigar smoking was in its infancy, with Germans supplying most of the cigars. Before 1830, the tiny city-state of Bremen was already importing 10 million pounds of tobacco annually, nearly all of which went into cigars, thus making Bremen the largest center of cigar production in the world. In the 1830s and '40s, half the cigars smoked in the United States and more than 90 percent of those smoked in Austria, England and Switzerland came from Germany.

Cuban cigars were regarded as the world's finest, but then, as now, they made up only a minuscule portion of the total cigar market. Even though a Cuban cigar cost 15 cents and German cigars sold for a penny, demand for Havanas far outstripped availability, and Cubans sold all the cigars they could roll. The much higher volume of cheap German cigars was of little concern to Cuban factory owners--until they discovered crates of these low-grade smokes being sold under classic Cuban-company names. The fraud was so rampant, Don Francisco Cabañas (owner and manufacturer of Cabañas cigars in Havana, a prestigious Cuban brand from 1810 until the late 1950s) estimated that "for every one of the 2 million Cuban cigars I ship to Europe, 6 million are being sold there."

Cubans give credit for the invention of the cigar band to local factory owner Gustave Bock, a European immigrant familiar with the scurrilous practices of Old World merchants. In the 1830s, Bock ordered a paper ring with his signature to be placed on every cigar intended for export. From the consumer's standpoint, Bock's bands had the added benefit of proving to one's fellows the prestigious nature of what eventually went up in smoke. Cuban archives show that by 1855, virtually all Cuban cigar makers with significant exports were banding their cigars, registering their bands with the government and advising consumers to insist on banded cigars.

Those are the more prevalent stories. Which do you believe? French police officers say chercher le femme [look for the woman], but accountants everywhere advise "follow the dollars." As best we can tell, sex doesn't seem to be involved in the creation of bands, cleanliness ranks low in motivation and cigar smokers seldom left a trail of unraveling leaf. If you are in business or just someone who believes the ancient adage that "money talks," your choice is an obvious one.

Not only did money talk, but consumers clearly wanted bands on their cigars. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the center of cigar production shift to the United States with its thousands of small factories and annual production figures in the billions. Since most U.S.-made cigars were of relatively low quality and competing for nickels in local markets, their makers saw little benefit in spending extra money to advertise with a band.

However, by 1900, four of every five American men smoked cigars, and brand competition was fierce. Printing costs had been reduced, and attractive custom bands were priced at an irresistible 70 cents per thousand--2 billion bands were sold that year in the United States alone. Catalogs contained hundreds of stock choices, so generic bands could appear on dozens of different cigars at an even lower cost. Even inexpensive cigars could afford lovely, full-color bands such as those sported by Tansil's New York City knockoff of the classic Cuban Punch.

European bands were typically sold as part of a matching set including inner and outer box labels, edging, top brand, flaps and band--all marketed and sold as a package. The more individualistic U.S. cigar makers chose each element of their packages, sometimes buying labels, bands, flaps, inner paper and edging from five printers.

Bands arrived cut to shape and wrapped in thread-tied bundles of 100. Before bands were applied (almost always by women) cigars were rolled, aged, selected, packed, pressed in boxes and then removed for banding and reboxed. Traditionally bands were put on by hand, secured with a dab of plant-based glue, which the worker delicately applied with the tip of her third finger. (The operation hasn't changed much to this day.) This operation is not as simple as it sounds because bands must be put at the same height on each cigar and the glue must not ooze out, causing the band to attach itself to the cigar and risking damage to the wrapper when removed. In cigar states like New York and Pennsylvania, children were usually hired after school for the less demanding job of packaging cigars in foil, cellophane or tubes.

With 2 billion bands a year deposited in ashtrays, dropped on floors or left on cigars which were later tossed into gutters, it's no wonder that collecting bands became a turn-of-the-century mania. Cigar companies sold complete sets of colorful new bands for a dime. Albums to hold them were given away by promotion-minded tobacconists and shopkeepers.

In its drive to smash competition, the American Cigar Co. offered premiums in exchange for bands. Its huge, illustrated 1904 catalog included nearly everything a homemaker could desire. A set of children's silverware or four-collar buttons could be had for collecting a mere 50 bands. Amass an additional 179,950, and a baby grand piano would be delivered to your door. You could sleep in a four-piece bedroom set made of bird's-eye maple for a mere 44,000 bands, ride in a rubber-tired surrey for only 32,000 and kick your own football for a paltry 1,200. If the mechanical wonders of the modern age were your forte, a year's subscription to Scientific American was a scant 600. For purposes of redemption, cigar bands from American's 28 brands of cigars could be mixed with the tin tags from the company's chewing tobacco as well as paper coupons from smoking tobacco and cigarettes.

"I can remember going for walks with Mom when I was around six years old," says Carl Eike, now retired in Tucson, Arizona. "She would hang onto my hand so hard it would turn white, because every time she'd let go, I'd dive into the gutter for another cigar band off a butt." Tales like this leave little doubt as to how turn-of-the-century children earned the sobriquet "guttersnipe" as they searched for the 150 bands needed to claim a baseball glove at one of the more than 20 redemption centers located from coast to coast.

Bands that weren't turned in were often pasted on. The art of decoupage with bands reached its zenith in the first decade of this century. Magazines published tips on covering ashtrays, vases and other objects with decoratively placed bands. Truly ambitious hobbyists spent weeks carefully covering chairs, desks and even dining-room tables with arrangements of matched bands.

All this came to an end as tens of thousands of cigar companies rolled their last leaves in the 1920s and '30s. Demand and competition declined, the variety of cigar brands dropped dramatically and interest in bands began to wane.

Myron Freedman, head of the International Label, Seal and Cigar Band Society for most of its three decades says the hobby of band collecting is almost dead in the United States. "There are only two or three of us old timers left and almost no new collectors under 30. When someone new forks out the six bucks to join our club, it's almost always because they found a small collection of bands and are hoping to sell it for a fortune. When they find out they're only worth five cents each, they lose interest and drop out. The next issue of the club bulletin will probably be the last."

Though few in number, U.S. band collectors are still actively searching for new additions to their collections. Ohioan Joe Hruby, with more than 216,500 bands to show for his 70 years' collecting, says he still finds bands he can use. "I recently bought a collection of 400 bands that contained 200 I didn't have," he says enthusiastically, adding that the same week he examined a collection of 5,000 that didn't offer a single new one. "Age is everything," says this active octogenarian. "I'm mostly looking for pre-1900 bands now."

Band collecting thrives in Europe. European printers and cigar makers still crank out sets of colorful yet inexpensive bands (less than $3 for a set of 20). Despite active band-collecting clubs in Spain, France and Belgium as well as Australia, prices for bands, as with most modern "made-for-collectors" items, remain low.

Cigar bands inevitably raise the question of the proper etiquette regarding their removal. Just as there is no complete agreement on the origin of the band, differences of opinion exist on contemporary band manners. Etiquette guides of nineteenth-century England, the land from which most manners were dictated, insisted that only the lower classes failed to remove the band. These same guides did approve, however, of turning the face of the band toward one's fellows if "the cigar was of sufficient quality to impress them."

Most modern U.S. tobacconists tell customers that band removal is a matter of choice, but agree that nearly 70 percent of cigar smokers follow tradition. Interestingly, all the tobacconists queried said they personally removed bands, except, predictably, those smoking their own house brands who view the display of the band as inexpensive advertising.

Charles Levi, owner of Iwan Ries in Chicago, advises customers to leave the band on. "Cigar wrappers are more delicate now than they used to be so there is a greater danger the smoker will damage the wrapper in removing the band," he says. "Some people leave a Montecristo or Cohiba band on in hopes of impressing someone, but the more secure, modern urban professionals don't give a damn about showing off and remove the band."

G. Cabrera Infante, the author of Holy Smoke, advises, "The band, though placed around a cigar last, must always come off first, no matter what bogus connoisseurs might tell you." A few lines later, though, he adds, "On the other hand you can leave the band if you want to advertise what you smoke, [but] on the other hand, if you don't want to appear too nouveau riche, you can strike off the band--and throw it away."

Davidoff called it "personal choice," claiming that in today's world there is no great shame in leaving the band on a cigar, citing references to both practices in the literature. He personally removed bands only after a few puffs when the cigar was well lighted and "running."

Anwer Bati in The Cigar Companion (Running Press, $24.95, 1993, 224 pages) joins the "personal choice" bandwagon, but notes that the British still consider it "bad form" to advertise the brand you are smoking. He follows Davidoff's lead in suggesting you not remove the band until you have smoked the cigar for a few minutes. The heat of the smoke, he claims, will make the gum on the band less adhesive and easier to remove without tearing the fragile wrapper.

The debates over bands may seem much ado about nothing, but the next time a little girl's face lights up as you slip a cigar-band ring on her finger, tell her one of the romantic legends if you choose. Just thank Gustave Bock for making her smile possible.

Cigar-industry historian Tony Hyman has been collecting its artifacts for 42 years. He is the author of Handbook of American Cigar Boxes (Treasure Hunt Books, $24.95, Box 3028-C, Pismo Beach, California 93448).