I didn’t really appreciate cigar label art until I understood the method in which they were created – chromolithography and the process of progressive proofs. In this article I want to expand on this coherent methodology, which has allowed cigar labels to rise to the highest level of printed art. Chromolithography (multi-colors) was an expensive technique, requiring separate limestone drawings for each color that made up the work of art. So once someone came up with a final image, the art work had to be broken down into finer steps. One stone was meticulously drawn for each color that made up the image (key line drawing). The result was a set of progressive proofs.
Now, in this case – “multiple pictures are worth a thousand words”.
Here is a very rare, and interesting progressive proof showing the methodology involved in producing a detailed color lithograph. This particular one uses eleven different color stones (including gold). There are twenty 10″ x 7″ plates of the El Falita label by Steele-Wedeles showing an exotically-attired Arabian woman.
Now, lets look what was needed to create this intricately beautiful label. First, this proof set has color bars. Many proofs will show color bars indicating all the colors used in the print. Each progressive proof shows one page for each color bar and in some cases an intermediate color combination without the color. Some proofs will not show color bars but will have color signatures of each artist. In addition, there were multiple cross-marks for aligning each stone. One image was used to create both the ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ with hash-marks indicating the outer label.
Typically, the more colors used on the chromolithograph the more realistic and beautiful the print. More colors allow for more subtle shades and variations in the resulting color print. Prints with many colors are rarer since it cost more money to engrave additional stones. Also, more colors is equivalent to more time to setup the print run and mix the inks. Each color sequence-was run until the full-color label resulted on the final page.
Once the process was completed, the printer bound the proof set into a paper-covered booklet, which served as a reference for identifying the stones and setting up future press runs. These are all bound loosely by string inside a paper wrap.
Even though cigar labels often were printed in bulk, there were rarely more than one or two proof books made for an individual label, thereby making progressive proof books particularly scarce.