Vintage Cigar Label Art
by Billy Shields
History seems to move in a circle, but seldom repeats itself. The swing music popular in the twenties has been reinvented, baseball is regaining its place as America's premier sport, and cigars --as well as smoking-related memorabilia-- have once again become a stylish if pungent accouterment to a good time.
Fascination with cigar art is not a fluke. The quality of the vintage labels used to adorn cigar boxes is almost undisputed. A new art form stone lithography was just finding its range during the late-1800's, and the timing for a cigar boom was perfect. Master German lithographers were coming to New York after being driven off by problems on the home front caused by the new regime of Otto von Bismarck. Not surprisingly, many famous U.S. lithography houses of the day had names like Voight, George Schlegel, Krueger, and Moehele. Similarly, master Cuban cigar makers were relocating to southern Florida to avoid being conscripted into the Spanish army during Cuba's Ten Years War. By 1885 Key West was the 13th largest port in the United States, thanks largely to its proximity to Cuba.
In order to compete, manufacturers needed to create visible, catchy packaging without using too many words. After all, in just the United States over 55 percent of the public was illiterate. Cigar makers employed flamboyant label designs which, along with the use of stone lithography, attracted many customers. It may be the only time in history that fine art sprouted out of a lack of formal education.
By 1870, cigars surpassed all other tobacco products in sales and were a relatively inexpensive status symbol. Large corporations and "mom-and-pop" operations alike spent indiscriminately on the ornate labels that would help bolster sales. In 1900, each design had an average start-up cost of $6,000 American dollars, and took a team of 12 highly skilled specialists a month to design. Despite these daunting figures, on a good day a crack team could churn out thousands of cigar labels.
Art on the labels ranged from the bawdy to the sexy to the downright racist, but they all seem to have one thing in common: regardless of the themes they expressed, they were absolutely beautiful works of art.
The more "forbidden" themes are often more valuable collector's items. In the United States for example, there is always the risk that the sale of art employing "samboyish" images of black people will be outlawed just as buying or selling slave papers is currently illegal. This makes labels with derogatory images of blacks (and there were a few) all the more coveted by collectors. Cigars with Jim Crow namesakes included Little Niggers, Nigger Head, Little Alabama Coons and Coon Skin, just to name a few.
A tremendous number of labels depicted Native Americans, who first introduced the tradition of smoking tobacco to early settlers of the United States. Ironically, while some cigar companies could have had more taste in their depictions of black, they made Native Americans look proud and distinguished almost universally. This is an incredible disparity, especially when one considers that the ruthless destruction of many tribes in the American west was still going on through much of the cigar boom. Liberties companies took with these labels usually involved the brand names, Uwanta and Cheekawgo were both word games companies used to name stogies.
The Cuban connection was another prominent influence in cigar label designs. The arrival of Cuban manufactures in Florida turned the U.S. cigar industry on its ear. They had a product that resembled the Cuban puro in every way except the price. These cigars, called "clear Havanas," sold for two-thirds the amount-- causing some makers hailing from the northern United States to move their whole operations to places like Ybor City and Tampa just to compete.
There are several labels partially or completely in Spanish from manufacturers in northern states. In fact, one U.S. cigar brand showed three U.S. Presidents Lincoln, Washington and Grant but had a Spanish name: Los Inmortales.
Unfortunately, this period of beauty could not last forever. Labor-intensive and time consuming stone lithography made way for the cheaper and faster four-color photomechanical process. Also, cigarettes soon superseded cigars as the premier tobacco product, gaining a wide following among women, a market cigars never quite captured. The era of gorgeous cigar art had come to a definitive end by 1930. For economic reasons, it will probably never again be feasible for corporations to produce cigar labels of equal or greater beauty.
Collectors usually look for a combination of indicators when purchasing vintage cigar labels. Better cigar labels incorporate 10 or more colors. Those dating before 1880 often have visible crayon marks from the stone plate imprint, lithographers later used random stippling as a means of saving time. Also, many quality old labels used bronze or 24 karat gold leafing and were embossed. Embossed labels, which is the acid test of a quality label, are among the most sought after by collectors. An unintentional effect of the embossing process is that it retards aging. Paper that is not embossed has shorter fibers, making it more brittle. Embossing requires elongated fibers in the paper, expanding the life span of the label. It is not impossible to find brand-new looking embossed labels that are over a 100 years old.
Modern labels have fine, uniform dots, blurred colors around shapes, and are rarely embossed. Printed on photomechanical off-set presses, they use only four colors as opposed to the ten or more colors often found in high quality, stone lithograph produced labels.
Interest in collecting labels in Mexico is less feverish than in the United States, but there was a time when Mexico also had its own ornate array of lithographed labels from homegrown cigar brands.
"It would be difficult to find them," said Miguel Eschiavoni, who is in the Mexican cigar industry, "because Mexicans are not really that used to saving them. They haven´t maintained a collecting tradition like there is in the United States." Nonetheless, brands such as Balsa Hermanos from Veracruz created some beautiful lithographs around the turn of the century. One label, "Las Glorias de Colon," (The Glories of Columbus) depicted the sailor as he set foot for the first time in the New World. Balsa Hermansos labels also used the aforementioned techniques of gold leafing and embossing.
Historically, the Mexican labels have a story as well. One turn of the century brand, "El Buen Tono," was actually started and maintained with French capital. Labels from this manufacturer, including one which depicts several angels, are among the more valuable from Mexico.
Some hope the use of elaborate labels will mirror the renewed interest in fine cigars, and cigar makers will once again contract master lithographers for flamboyant masterpieces. While such optimists will almost certainly be disappointed, it may be a good thing that such advertising art is a thing of the past. The price of quality stogies would skyrocket beyond affordability for most aficionados.
Not surprisingly, the vast and varied array of regalia associated with cigars has become quite valuable. Fancy clippers, speciality lighters and the vintage sterling silver or tooled leather cigar cases are also popular items among collectors. Besides unused cigar-box labels, the often discarded paper rings that encircled the robustos of yesteryear also find themselves carefully framed and displayed in stylish living rooms from Dusseldorf to Durango.
Cigar bands came out of a more utilitarian purpose. During the beginning of the 19th century cigar hawkers in Europe were passing off low-grade German and Dutch smokes as authentic (and more expensive) Cuban puros. To combat this early form of copyright infringement, a Dutchman working in the cigar industry in Havana came up with the paper rings as a way to discern the genuine article from imitations. For some reason, Europeans tend to concentrate more on bands than labels, and today there are modern rings made in Europe solely for the purpose of being framed.