As a boy in Redlands, Calif., Tony Hyman needed something "to put things in," so he obtained a dozen empty cigar boxes from a local tobacco store. "I Noticed that most of the boxes were for different brands," Hyman says, "and I distinctly remember wondering how many kinds of cigar boxes there were. I decided to find out."
That was 30 years and 4,000 boxes ago. The labels reproduced on these pages are from Hyman's extensive collection of cigar-box art, many of the best examples of which have sports themes. The 43-year-old Hyman, who has a Ph.D. in instructional technology from Columbia, now lives in Watkins Glen, N.Y. and is director of a video/film library for schools and public TV. He began collecting by asking stores to save old boxes for him; after a while he started going house to house, ringing doorbells, in search of them. "I found that, on the average, about one in every three houses had a box. By the time I was out of high school I had 2,300 of them. I'm culling my collection, trying to get it down to 1,000 or 1,500 of the best."
A choice old cigar box can bring between $100 and $300 today, although most go for less than a tenth of that. There are about 500 cigar-oriented collectors in the U.S. and Europe, most of whom, unlike Hyman, concentrate on labels or bands rather than on boxes. Hyman estimates that more than 1½ million brands were created over the years, primarily between 1860 and 1920.
Cigars had been all but unknown in the U.S. before 1800—pipes were the thing, then chewing tobacco—and didn't become really popular until after the Civil War. The postwar period saw tremendous commercial expansion, new buildings, new wealth, new culture. Americans were being transformed from an outdoor to an indoor people. Cigars had been the mark of the upper classes in England, and now American men wanted to smoke them, too. As Hyman says, it was no longer couth to stand around and spit. The boom was on.
Cigars had been bound together in bunches and shipped in barrels, but in 1863, to keep a closer eye on them for tax purposes, the Federal government ruled that they had to be packed in boxes. This act set the stage for cigar-box art, a uniquely American phenomenon. By the 1880s there were between 5,000 and 10,000 cigar companies in the U.S., most quite small, distributing their products locally, and each had its own brand, or two, or three. When dozens and dozens of competitive brands were displayed in the cigar stores that were opening in every neighborhood, bright, lively labels were a necessity. By coincidence, the craft of color lithography developed at about this time, and most of the labels designed by commercial artists were lithographed in rich color and detail. Usually, eight or 10 lithographic stones were used in the process. Melvin Moller of New York City, a certified public accountant and cigar-label collector, says, "It was a remarkable process. The reproduction was fabulous. You couldn't do anything like it today. It wouldn't be economically possible."
Sports, while popular, were by no means the most common theme used in cigar-box labels, lagging well behind famous men and beautiful women. Even so, sports subjects were an ideal "point of sale" device, which essentially was all that a cigar-box label was, an advertising lure to catch a man's eye and persuade him to buy.
For cigars were a man's smoke. True, there were women who smoked them; the Boston poet Amy Lowell created a scandal 80 years ago when it was disclosed that she was an habitual cigar smoker. But cigars were basically masculine. In the golden age of male supremacy in the U.S.—roughly from the Civil War to the First World War, when Victorian morals prevailed and women fainted in drawing rooms while men built railroads and cornered the stock market—cigars symbolized the successful man. Maybe he didn't actually puff a panatela while pulling a sweep in a scull, as the gent on one of Hyman's cigar boxes (page 74) is shown doing, but there were few other masculine occasions when a cigar was considered inappropriate. Men gathered to smoke, donning special caps and jackets to keep the pervasive smell of the smoke from their hair and clothing. The ladies—God bless 'em, male chauvinists said, chuckling—repaired to another room after dinner and left the men alone with their cigars, their brandy and their off-color stories. A woman is only a woman, Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1886, but a good cigar is a smoke. It was a man's world, in business, in sports, everywhere, and it lasted a long time.
Eventually, as with everything, the great age of the cigar ended. By 1920 the cigarette had superseded it as the popular smoke. Mechanization, introduced during World War I, turned out a cheaper cigar that all but eliminated the old-fashioned handmade product. The cigar's status as a symbol of importance eroded. Cigar boxes were made of cardboard instead of wood. The number of brands diminished. Stone lithography had given way to photo offset. Smoking jackets went out of style. Women got the vote.