The Art of Cigar Boxes

Four-Square Masterpieces Cigar-Box Labels Once Served as the Ultimate Image Makers for a Good Smoke
| By Tony Hyman | From Fidel Castro, Summer 94
The Art of Cigar Boxes

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.

With those changes in the 1870s and 1880s, domestic cigars became better, cheaper and more available, and for the next 50 years, cigars replaced the plug as the most popular form of tobacco use in America.

By 1900, four out of five men (and a goodly number of women and children) smoked cigars, and cigar connoisseurship had become an art. Dozens of distinct domestic tobaccos were blended with tobaccos from Cuba and Sumatra and rolled into more than 3,500 shapes and sizes--ready "for every occasion, purpose and time of day." About 150,000 cigar factories flooded the country with a bewildering array of product. Between 1870 and 1920, more than 1.5 million brands of U.S. cigars appeared and disappeared on the market. More than 250 billion cigars were manufactured. And the law said they all had to be packed in boxes.

At first, cigar boxes sat closed on shelves behind the bar or counter, with only the simplest markings to identify the contents. But as the cigar industry became more competitive, the humidified cigar counter was developed to allow the new varieties, shapes and colors of cigars to be displayed without drying out. Colorful inside labels became essential to make a brand stand out among a sea of rather similar-looking competitors.

Cigars were unique among American retail products because everyone had a finger in the advertising pie. Cigar makers labeled cigars in accordance with their own tastes, but any wholesaler with a big order could get the same cigar packed in a different box with a different label, any saloon or drugstore that bought as few as 10 boxes could have the cigars reboxed under yet another label. With fancy labels costing only a penny or two, even customers could easily order "custom" brands emblazoned with their children, dog or favorite boat. As a result, there were more brands of cigar than any other product in history. During the height of cigar popularity, a small-town drugstore was forced to carry as many as 350 brands to keep its clientele happy.

For example, the 60 hand-rollers at the Powell & Goldstein factory (1870-1926) in Oneida, New York, made only two cigars: a five-center they sold as Factory 370 and a popular 10-center called Napoleon. Although they made just two cigars, they (like many other factories) were responsible for hundreds of brands. For more than 50 years, Powell & Goldstein's five salesmen covered every town within a day's ride of the Erie Canal. They created "custom brands" of cigars for hotels, restaurants, barbershops, train stations, social clubs--even haberdashers and shoe-shine parlors. The same cigar was sold side by side under multiple labels depicting well-dressed dandies, children at play, Masonic temples, white elephants and the mustached proprietor of a Buffalo pool hall--each trying to catch the eye of a smoker with a dime in his hand.

And catch his eye they did. Cigar labels were spectacular: full of colorful flags, eagles and naked women...showing off dogs, guns and fast horses. Ballplayers, actors, vaudevillians, opera stars and popular comic-strip characters were immortalized as were local heroes, civil servants and saloon keepers.

Labels depicted the high life, gambling, racial stereotypes, popular paintings, regional railroads, automobiles, inventions, political candidates, famous generals and women by the carload, generally staring virtuously into space. Labels featured lightbulbs, gas meters, wireless, the transatlantic cable, talking machines, radios and the Model T. Each new product or trend, new feat or event made it onto a label.

Brand loyalty was not the rule--advertising and national distribution were still far in the future--and new brands and labels were created almost haphazardly by today's standards. Big cigar companies ordered fancy labels in lots of 100,000 or more, but press runs of simple one-and-two-color labels were often as small as 1,000 to fill orders from one-man factories, which produced only five or six boxes of cigars a day and changed brands frequently. Stock pictorial labels would be printed in large lots with no brand name, ready for the end user to add the appellation of his choice. The same cigar-label girl could be "Daisy" in Dubuque, "Dora" in Kansas City, "Donna" in Des Moines or "Ermintrude" in Boston.

Yet the process wasn't as simple as this proliferation of brands and labels makes it seem. The monthlong effort started with an idea or crude sketch from the customer or the art-department staff. This was turned into a more-polished pencil drawing, which, when approved, was followed by a watercolor done by the art department, although printers sometimes hired free-lance artists. The painting was then sent to the lithographic department, where a specialist created a key line drawing, a black-and-white interpretation resembling a paint-by-numbers diagram. Staff lithographic artists then translated the drawings onto lithographer's limestone with grease pencil.

Better labels were printed in 12 colors, each requiring a separate press run. After 1890, additional runs were required for embossing and gilding (done with a bronze powder and shoe-shine-type buff wheel). Proofs were run, adjustments made and finally the label approved for printing. If the label was one of the tens of thousands created on speculation by the printing company, it was then bound into sample books.

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).

A Box Artist

Label artist Henry Maier was born in Germany in 1884, where he exhibited unusual artistic skills early in life. Considered a "boy wonder," Maier began painting professionally while still in his midteens. Emigrating to the United States in 1902 to avoid the draft, Maier was happily painting cigar labels for Steiner Litho within two weeks of arrival.

Although his skills were outstanding and the quality of his work exceptional in an industry known for its fine craftsmanship, Maier never became famous in the art world, primarily because he preferred partying and womanizing to work. A favorite ploy of this handsome, curly-haired artist was to invite girlfriends to his studio to get naked so he could "immortalize" their beautiful bodies on a cigar label.

Although hundreds of thousands of cigar labels were created by Maier and other artists, the original artwork almost never survived. It was standard practice of printers to destroy the originals as soon as the lithographers had transferred them to stone. If an artist insisted on his work being returned, the paintings were usually defaced or cut.

-T. H.