The Cigar Box Billboard

In  1863 the Federal Government mandated all cigar makers to box their cigars. The reason, of course, the government needed revenue to pay for the civil war (some things just never change). Neither Congress nor the IRS placed restrictions on cigar quality, ingredients, selling price or on what could be said, claimed or pictured on a box of cigars. But the government wanted it’s money so for the first time, the U.S. government mandated cigars to be in cigar boxes with a tax stamp sealed over the lid. cigar box tax stamp

If this lid was broken and the box refilled then the merchant could wind up paying a hefty fine . Cigar box with early tax stamp.

Just think, if the government hadn’t mandated boxing cigars, there probably would not have been very many cigar box labels. Anyhow, the cigar makers needed to figure out what to do with a blank box. Initially, cigar makers were stuck in their old ways; they did not see the value of the cigar box for advertising. Most cigar makers just burnt their brand on the box. However, within a short time some entrepreneurial cigar maker decided if they created an attractive label to put on the box it would attract customers.  The Outer Cigar label was born around 1860.

cigar box early 1866- grantThe U.S. cigar industry single handily turned the first few decades after the Civil War into the most important period in the history of  advertising and package design. Selling cigars became an outrageous free-for-all involving hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, each convinced he had the best ideas for separating smokers from their nickels.  The inside of cigar boxes evolved from blank paper to a magnificent billboard upon which every ploy used by modern advertisers was first tried. Left is an outer label from the 1860’s. Bottom is an Inner Cigar box label after 1870.

cigar box - 1880 magnolia


Let The Presses Roll

Let’s take a look at how Lois Senefelder, in 1798, was able to print his stone pictures. Senefelder was very inventive. He found that to transfer a stone image to paper required a special machine that pressed the image onto  the paper.  When he  dampened the stone with water the non-greasy areas of the stone retained the water, while the greasy drawing areas of  the stone would remain dry, repelling  the water. Then when he applied an oily ink  to the stone with a brush, it adhered only to the drawing.   He built his own printer using a scraper bar to  pass over the paper and stone while using a hand crank to apply pressure. Below is his original press.

stone lithography press early

As refinements in drawing materials and chemical processes were made, so were improvements in the presses used to print from stone. Traditional printing methods of the day, flat platen presses for woodcuts and roller presses for etchings, proved ineffective for stone lithography. Subsequent improvements in wood and iron involved a flat bed press which moved the stone and paper under a stationary scraper bar. The inked was applied with a roller and the stone was hand cranked to move it under the press. This method provided sharp and uniform images and has remained virtually unchanged to this day for fine art printing of lithographic prints. Below is a picture of a typical flat bed press of the mid 1800’s.

stone lithogrphy press hand

Lithography offered uniquely different opportunities for creative expression when compared to wood cut and intaglio techniques, the two major printmaking methods of the 18th and early 19th century. After 1850 the rapid press was introduced, the inking and moistening of the stone now being carried out mechanically. Lithographic presses were worked by hand at first, but from 1870 onwards they were driven by steam.

stone lithography single feeder

By 1880, lithography firms could print hundreds of cigar labels a day. This was the start of the golden age of cigar box labels.

Cigar Box Labels and Stone Lithography – A Match Made in Heaven!

Before I go on talking about early cigar box labels, I’d like to a take a little time to talk about Stone lithography and why it was such an ideal match for the cigar maker.

The etymology of lithography goes back to the Greek word for “stone drawing.” It is as much science as it is art. Invented by Alois Senefelder of Austria 1798 and patented as a printing medium in 1799. Originally devised by Senefelder as a process for printing theater scripts, it saw dramatic refinement in the early 19th-century as both a commercial printing process and as a means for artists to print directly from their drawings to make limited edition prints.

Stone lithography was a very easy medium for the artist. The artist used a soft Bavarian limestone as his canvas, drew pictures with greasy crayons, applied ink and Walla!! The stone produced identical copies of his image on paper. How exciting that must have been for the artist. Now, take a budding cigar industry that needed to attract customers. It had to be “love at first site”. Can you imagine the light bulb that went off when the first cigar maker looked at a stone lithograph and said to himself “What a great idea to advertise my cigars”. The artist was let free to use his imagination, apply his artistic skills, and create the most detailed vibrant images ever before seen by the American public!

stone lithography artiststone lithography - social smoke Chromolithography, or the technique of “printing in  colors,” had a dazzling and meteoric life. After centuries of black ink on white paper, chromo-lithography burst onto the American scene about 1840 and then vanished by the 1930s. But during this nearly one hundred year period, chromolithography revolutionized the printing industry and intoxicated the world with lush colorful hues. It transformed  cigar box labels, advertising posters and many other types of printed ephemera into eye-catching works of art that proved too beautiful to be thrown away after temporary use.

Cigar Label Art Speaks to Us!

The curtain opens. Standing before you are bright smiling people. A facetious man, rosy cheeked sensuous women, rich colored costumes, and intricate detail. The beholder is having a glorious epiphany.  Looking at  a cigar box label is much like the unfolding of a good play. It stirs the emotions and leaves a personal connection between the viewer and the image. There is something more then meets the eye. One wants to touch, feel and embrace the entire image. This is exactly what the original artist  had in mind. Grab the viewer and generate excitement! The imagination and creativity of the artist can only be called genius. No wonder why people become passionate about cigar labels. If you ever have the chance to view a vintage cigar box label in person,  I think you may be surprised!

sweet smiles - inner

Cigar Box Labels and the Civil War

The War Between the States was a turning point in American History. Everyone that has studied history knows that the ‘perfect union’ that Abraham Lincoln envisioned could not have happened if it wasn’t for the civil war.  The changes that occurred because of the civil war were far reaching. Besides abolishing slavery, and bringing the union together there were also ripples of change throughout the American economy. One of the changes that occurred was the increase in cigar smoking  and consequently how cigars were marketed.

If you take a look at the labels below you can can imagine why cigars became popular during the war. Tobacco chewing and pipe smoking was already a favorite of the infantry. When fighting stopped, men spent long hours around the camp fire smoking.  As the war progressed, most U.S. generals were seen smoking cigars. Generals use to ride into camp encourage their men and offer a particular soldier a good cigar . Cigar smoking soon caught on. In order to capitalize on this increase in popularity cigar makers began to advertise using a few additional colors in order to attract the buyer. The technique of chromolithography (multiple colors) was born.

grant smokingmilitary brand inner