Selling the Smokes: Vintage Cigar Ads

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

Good ads make arguments. The argument includes a promise, the promise being that if we buy this product, we will become the kind of person the ad depicts. So if one purchases a Montblanc pen, the argument goes, one becomes a person of taste; if one drives a Lexus, one is stamped as a person of means. There's a saying in the advertising industry that goes, "The philosophy behind much advertising is based on the observation that every man is really two men--the man he is and the man he wants to be." The philosophy applies to cigar advertising as well.

Consider a 1950 New York Times ad for El Producto cigars. The half-page advertisement--smack in the middle of movie announcements about Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour at the Paramount for 50 cents in My Favorite Brunette--shows a forlorn man, doubled over with grief. His psychiatrist, leaning back and smiling while smoking an El Producto, diagnoses the man's malady. "He is a victim of frustration," the psychiatrist says. "He has been abroad where he cannot buy El Producto." Next to pictures of the cigars the copy reads: "No psychiatrist needed--try a pocketful of El Productos today."

Another print ad from the same period shows three men in smart suits and Stetsons at the racetrack smoking "America's Number One Cigar, the New Phillies." These pricey gems were 12 cents apiece--3 for 35 cents!--and were a vast improvement over their Philly predecessors because of their "richer Havana tobacco," "finer wrapper" and "milder smoking" (due, but of course, to "the patented curing and mellowing process" used to make them). "Yessiree!" one of the three says, "when I want real downright smoking pleasure my money goes to Phillies every time." Tucked into the Times sports pages, ads for Admiration cigars and Gold Label Bonitas are equally as spirited and innocent.

That's advertising. It's full of hyperbole; but hyperbole may be what's needed. The person who isn't inclined to buy the product needs enticing; the person already hooked won't mind. Advertise-ments draw us into a world where logic is temporarily suspended and where one is led to believe that one's happiness and entire well-being are there for the asking, if only you purchase this product. Whether we as consumers need the product is none to the point. After all, it's not just the product that we're purchasing, but the world that goes with it.

The 1950s represent a turning point in the style of cigar advertising. During the previous 100 years, cigar ads were among the best-conceived, -written and -illustrated of all product advertisements, with wordplay, exciting images and graphic magnificence. Ads since 1950, however, are for the most part less imaginative and colorful. The spot "Should a Gentleman Offer a Tiparillo to a Lady?" (1961), memorable for its jingle, is a notable exception.

Just ask John Grossman. Author, painter, graphic artist and collector, Grossman owns a firm called The Gifted Line that includes more than 225,000 museum-quality antique images. He labels his collection "graphic ephemera" and displays his wares in Point Richmond, California. Included in his collection are more than 85,000 cigar box labels and more than 5,000 other items related to the cigar industry: bands, proof sheets, show cards, posters--even cigar trading cards. For researchers and historians, no more colorful and plentiful record of cigar-related print items exists anywhere.

How did Grossman, 65, become interested in cigar ephemera? "I'm a graphic artist," he says. "Ephemera have wonderful vitality and cigar ads were always beautifully illustrated, embossed. Labels themselves were printed in anywhere from eight to 10 colors. Each cigar manufacturer tried to top the others."

And how. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, commercial color printing was a novelty, having only started in the 1850s, and cigar manufacturers made the most of it. In an attempt to appeal to a broad audience, many of the early ads depict cigars in a manly, sporting context. One cigar box label (1878) shows a cigar-smoking frog hitting a red, white and blue ball. Other frogs--non-smoking frogs, that is--wait to catch it. The ad doesn't suggest a brand name. The only copy reads "The Hit." The illustration is vibrant, homey, even patriotic, with the multicolored ball and an American flag placed in the outfield. The artwork is exquisite. Frogs dressed as sailors appear on another trading card for Durham Cigars (circa 1895). "Frogs were a recurring theme," says Grossman. "I don't know what it is! But the advertisers were trying to appeal to all classes of persons."

Other sporting ads were real grabbers. The Bruiser cigar box label (1886) shows a bloody fist, surrounded by a boxing ring--and that's it. No cigar is in the fist. The dramatic image suggests that if you don't smoke Bruiser--a "real man's brand"--you'll be going down for the count.

Tobacco trading cards were another hit. Stacks of trading cards might be given by the manufacturer to the retailer, who passed them out to customers. People often saved the cards, putting them in scrapbooks. The cards had some attention-grabbing image on one side and information about the product on the flip side.

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."

Grossman's most prized possession is a 1901 box of 50 cigars with presidents on the cigar bands. "There were 25 presidents up to that point," Grossman says, "and the box contains two of each." The box has four layers of cigars, a sheet of wax paper between each layer. "I bought it at an auction," he notes. He won't say what he paid or how much it is worth.

Brought up in Atlanta, Elliot Singer, 56, is another collector of cigar ads. Singer was an account executive from 1964 to 1969 with J. Walter Thompson, then the world's largest advertising agency, so he knew a good ad when he saw it. "I thought that the graphics and design of cigar ads were masterful," he said. "I was at a country auction [in 1970] and I saw a cigar sign and thought it was colorful and paid about $300 for it."

For Singer, that began a prolonged search for box labels, posters and other exquisitely wrought cigar items. "I started seeing a lot of cigar box labels at country auctions and advertising shows. And I thought, 'Well, those are pretty.' So I bought a big book with sleeves to slide the labels in. These were labels that went on the inside cover of cigar boxes. So I bought a couple of hundred of them over a period of time and I thought, 'Well, I don't know how many there are out in the world, but there can't be too many and maybe I'll get one of every one that has ever been printed.' I thought it would be fun to do that." Until he discovered that there were more than 200,000.

Before the turn of the century, manufacturers would do most anything to catch the consumer's eye. "They made door pushes, the push on a screen door of the cigar store," says Singer. "On a fan they had a pull string to turn on the fan, and the string had a sign hanging from it and it would swirl around. I thought that was pretty neat from an advertising standpoint."

Recounting his favorites, two ads leap to Singer's mind. "Some of the factories in the United States were very unsanitary; so one of the ads says, 'These cigars are only produced in the finest sanitary conditions.' " And then there's a Denby cigar ad depicting a merchant with a pencil behind his ear and a full white beard holds a cigar, tilts his head back in pleasure and proclaims, "Such Good-ness!" "The implication is that the cigar is so good that I know you're going to enjoy it," Singer says. "The best ads are whimsical."

Singer has some of the poster ads hanging in the recreation room in his Nashville home.

"My wife, Retta, has restricted them to a particular area," he says. "She thinks they are quite colorful and are just a little part of me, if you will." A little part of him and a little part of the history of cigar advertising.

Ken Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (AllSports Books, 1997).