Key West Cigar Box Labels

In 1870, with the civil unrest in Cuba, Cuban cigar makers fled their country to Florida’s Key West Islands. The immigrants brought with them the only skills they knew – hand rolling cigars – so factories began to emerge along the Florida Keys, and their products made inroads up and down the east coast.


If a customer asked for a Key West cigar they knew they were getting a cigar every bit as good as a Cuban Imported cigar. Soon cigars began to be classified into three distinct classes: Imported, Domestic and Key West. As the Key West Cigar grew in popularity, the industry spread northward to Tampa where shipping facilities could better handle the transport of tobacco.

Many Cigar Box Labels of the 1870’s displayed the Key West theme to indicate to customers it was a genuine Key West cigar. The themes included beautiful women, symbols of Industrial progress, and the marketing of fine tobacco.

Today, many cigar box label collectors highly prize the Key West Cigar labels. There still remains enough existing Key West Cigar Box Labels that by themselves they can make up a nice subject area for a collector.

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Is a Vintage Cigar Box Label Considered a True Work of Art?

Art is defined as the creation of something beautiful that affects the senses, mind, intellect and even the soul. Cigar Box Labels posses all four of these qualities so why shouldn’t we consider them true works of art? There seems to be something missing like; like who is the artist? or like is it a single piece of creation or reproduction? This is where things get a little fuzzy.

When you admire a beautiful piece of cigar label art, the knowledge of the original artist has long since disappeared. The best you can do is know the lithography company that reproduced the artwork. The artists that worked for the lithography companies created the art but the lithography company mass produced their work and took all the credit.  In a way, this is no different then today – when viewing art produced for mass advertising. In addition, many artists today reproduce their works through prints or other mass production methods but they keep them in limited quantities.  This is especially important if you’re considering parting with a hefty sum of money for a piece of ‘art’.

What makes vintage cigar label art different is the method in which they reproduced the original art. The use of chromolithography, strictly speaking,  is a colored image printed by many applications of ink on multiple lithographic stones, each stone using a different color ink. Chromolithographs were elaborately made, using upwards of 13 or more stones to create a rich and sophisticated image. It took many skilled craftsmen to produce a cigar box label from stone – from the original artist that created the conceptual drawing, to the craftsmen who drew the images onto the stone, to the skilled printers who aligned the stones and laid the ink.    Many chromolithographs were intended to duplicate watercolors and paintings, allowing the middle class to hang “art” in their home at an affordable price.

If you are thinking of purchasing a vintage cigar box label, the more you know about the subject, the better off you are. All vintage cigar label art is rare but it is not the original work. However, because vintage cigar box labels are both rare and antique (over 100 years old) they have a predetermined value determined by the collectors that buy them.  You don’t need to be professionally trained to make a smart decision.  Anyone can become a wise collector with patience, discipline and the right tools.

Prudent collectors know the marketplace, and the prices. Be informed, watch for auctions, monitor the buying and selling, and understand the grading system. Cultivate a good standing with cigar art retailers and community. Buy not for just an investment but for the love of the art and historical value it may bring. Who knows, another hundred years from now vintage cigar label art may become priceless.

The Enigmatic Symbols in Cigar Box Labels

In no other art form – that I am aware of – did artists use more symbolism then in cigar box label art. There is one overriding reason for this: the cigar box label had to evoke an emotional reaction. To better understand why so much symbolism was used one must understand the times.  The cigar box label originated during the Victorian era 1843 -1901 when symbols were being used to express everything from sentimentality to repressed sexual desires.  The tendency towards Victorian sentimentality manifested itself in a number of complicated ways, symbolism was used in writing, pictures, flowers and jewelry to express or convey hidden messages. Graphically, these emotions were first epitomized with ancient mythological goddesses, flowers, cherubs and cupids . As the 19th century ended additional symbols were used such as the cornucopia, anchors, anvils, flags, ships all symbols to represent commerce and progress.

Cherubs are angelic and signify innocence.

Visions of girls as flowers to be plucked was commonly used in cigar label art to attract the gentleman’s desire.

Symbolic associations with the rose have existed since the days of the ancient Romans and Greeks. Roses have been identified with love and passion since those times, beginning with their association with the goddesses Aphrodite, Isis and Venus. Cleopatra is said to have received Marc Anthony in a room literally knee-deep in roses.

The staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, has a SINGLE snake wrapped around it. His staff was also called a Caduceus and was adopted as a symbol by the medical profession (although the modern medical symbols I have seen use the double snake).

Hephaestus; was a Greek God who Roman equivalent was Vulcan.  He is the son of Zeus and Heronia the King and Queen of the Gods or else (according to some accounts) of Hera alone.

Caduceus:. The Caduceus is  a winged staff  with two serpents intertwined about it.

In Greek mythology this symbol is associated with the god Hermes who’s Roman equivalent was mercury.
Hermes was the messenger of the gods and conductor of souls to Hades. Though he was the god of many things, for our purposes, he was the god of Travelers, Luck and Commerce. Hermes is portrayed with winged hat and sandals, carrying the Caduceus.


Cornucopia
A symbol of plentitude, strong harvests and abundance: The Cornucopia usually had cigars or gold coins overflowing with fruits, and abundant harvest.

Scientists, Inventors, Explorers of the Cigar Box Labels

The pioneering men and women of the 19th century gave birth to new ideas, innovation, and exploration. Inventions of the electrical light bulb, telephone, railways, and steamships lead to the industrial revolution, while the theory of mans evolution brought it all into perspective to how far we had come.  It was an exciting time when scientists, inventors and explorers were bigger then life characters, and thus made ideal subjects for the cigar box label image.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is probably Americas best known inventor. and his workshop patented 1,093 inventions. His work includes:  improving the incandescent light bulb,   inventing the phonograph,  and the motion-picture projector.

Samuel S. Morse
– with the increased size of the United States, better communication networks became ultra important. In 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse created the telegraph and by 1860, this network ranged throughout the eastern coast to the Mississippi.

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly one of the most influential people of the 19th century, As the foremost proponent of the theory of evolution, the British naturalist Charles Darwin holds a unique place in history. His writings were controversial in their day, and can still inspire controversy in the modern world.and his influence on science and society itself is profound.

Wm. G. FargoPioneer American Expressman  of American Express Co. and Wells, Fargo & Co. two of the first express companies in the world. A giant in the American transportation industry, William G. Fargo also invested in railroads, and served as vice president of the New York Central Railroad and a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad during that road’s expansion into the northern Plains.

Robert E. Perry – Famous American arctic explorer, first to discover the North Pole.

How to Determine the Age of a Cigar Box Label

In my dealings with people that are new to cigar box labels, someone always asks the question “How can I determine the age of a cigar box label? ” Many people assume cigar box labels are newer than they really are. Most of the surviving cigar box labels are older then 100 years, and they still look in great shape. For this reason alone many would be buyers may pass up a good deal.  However, if you know what to look for it’s not all that hard to determine age. Here are four ways to help determine a cigar box labels age:

1. Is the Cigar Box Label a stone lithograph?

The majority of Stone Lithographs were created between 1864 and 1910. All Cigar Box Labels created from a stone have a distinctive look. The colors are bright and crisp and when viewed under a magnifying glass they have a distinctive stipple pattern.

2. Is the label embossed?

Embossing are raised areas on the cigar label, caused by presses. Embossing was used after 1884 to high-lite gold coins, clothes, and structural features. If the cigar box label is embossed it was created after 1884.

3. Is there a copyright date below the image?

The copyright date is the year the cigar box label was copyrighted with the government. This is the best indication of how old it is.

4.  Is there a lithographers name underneath the image?

Most cigar labels carry the lithographers name in small letters below the image. Below are some better known lithographers and the dates they were in business.

1849 – 1873 F. Heppenheimer
1873-1885 Heppenheimer & mauer
1885-1892 F. Heppenheimer & sons
1847-1872 George Harris
1873-1880 George Harris & sons
1861-1970 Calvert Lithographic Co.
1892- 1930 American Lithographic
1892-1900 O. L. Schwencke
1874-1915 Schmitt & Co.
1916-1926 George Schmidt & Co.
1841-1851 George Schlegel 75 John Street
1851-1870 George Schlegel 75-77 Duane St
1870-1879 George Schlegel 676 Williams St
1880-1919 George Schlegel Art Lithographers
1897-1970 F.M. Howell & Co.

The Politics of Cigar Box Labels

Political campaigns of the late 1800’s were exciting times for the public, politicians and cigar makers; very different then today’s planned TV ad’s and debates. At no other time was the citizen’s interest in elections and politics more passionate; with more then eighty percent of all eligible voters actually voting for local and national candidates. The basic campaign strategy was the maximum mobilization of potential votes. The candidates kicked off their campaigns by first notifying the public through the use of printed paper including: newspapers, posters, handbills, and cigar labels

The Politician’s image on cigar labels made money for the cigar makers. Most politicians smoked cigars and most debated in public forums. The candidates association with the cigar makers suggested that they intended to support and endorse pro tobacco legislation.


Usually, portraits of political party candidate’s  and their  names were prominently displayed . Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison perfectly fit the image of the cigar smoker.

This is considered one of the first Lincoln political labels. Lincoln frequently appeared on cigar labels during the 19th century.

Grover Cleveland, elected in 1884, was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win office since James Buchanan in 1856.

The election of 1888 is a famous one in cigar circles as no other election in history generated more cigar brands and a greater variety of cigar box labels.

McKinley, though popular in his day, is probably best remembered now as the president whose assassination elevated Theodore Roosevelt, his vice president, to the White House.

Christmas and The Cigar Label

Ahh, once again we find ourselves in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year for gift giving and celebration.

This may be a surprise to most of you but Cigars appear to have been the first widely available commercial product to create special packaging for the holidays.  Displaying the “Holiday Season” theme on a cigar box labels was an ideal way for Cigar manufactures to push cigars as a great gift idea. Each year, from 1880 to 1920, during the eight week holiday season, millions of cigar were sold. A presents of a box of cigars was an appropriate gift from a son to his father, wife to her husband, a worker to his boss, nephew to an uncle, or a student to their mentors.

The earliest known Christmas theme appeared on a cigar box label around 1860.  By 1900 shoppers would have hundreds of brands, prices and package designs from which to choose. Christmas labels were appropriately covered with Santas and elves, and others showed women and children giving boxes of cigars as gifts. A New Year’s motif included scenes of drinking, dancing, merriment, and celebration. Carried as printer stock labels, they bore phrases such as “Merry Christmas,” “Season’s Greetings,” “Happy New Year,” and “Compliments of the Season.”

Because they were associated with pleasant memories, Christmas cigar box labels were kept as keepsakes. Today, many still survive in excellent condition and are avidly sought by collectors of advertising, and tobacco collectibles.