The Vanity in Cigar Box Labels

In the 1890’s a new type of cigar box label began to be advertised. In place of – drawn on stone lithographic portraits – were photographic images.  Collectors refer to any black and white images transferred from an original photograph – as a vanity label.

What makes Vanity Cigar Labels so interesting? These were everyday people of their day; wealthy people, their children, businessmen, local politicians, and sports teams. When you see a vanity label you know right away what a person looked like in that era, what they wore, their hair style, and what they were most proud of. The cigar label was no longer just for the rich and famous. Any American wealthy enough could immortalize themselves on a cigar label.  Anyone or any proud possession could be, and was, incorporated into a cigar label.

Initially, cigar label portraits were drawn from paintings, etchings, or photographs using a hand stippling technique of applying small dots to the stone. By the 1890’s lithographers began using a screen process technique that enabled them to transfer photographs to stones. The process called “half-tone” (photo-lithography) made the image appear like the original photograph. Many geometric half-tones took the place of hand drawn stipples and clearly mimicked the original photograph. For the first time, instead of drawing pictures, photographic images were transferred to the stone and integrated with the rest of the  drawing. They were advertised as “Half Tone” portraits and anyone with enough money could put any photograph on a stock cigar label.

Two of the more famous lithographic companies that used this technique were F. M.Howell, and Witsch & Shmitt

The popularity of vanity labels was short lived. The peak of popularity was between 1900 & 1910. By WWI vanity labels were on the decline along with the cigar industry.  Cigars were giving way to cigarettes as the primary smoker’s choice.


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