Cigar Bands - Hearsay & History

The origin of cigar bands lies primarily in the realm of business and commerce. By the early 1800s the Caribbean island nation of Cuba was the commonly acknowledged source of the finest cigars in the world. Cigar manufacturers shipped cigars in wooden barrels or small wooden boxes which were inscribed with the name of the manufacturer and place of origin, but without any further adornment on the cigars themselves. Cigar bands made of paper were reportedly first introduced by a Dutchman working in the cigar industry in Havana in the 1830s. In Europe it was apparently not uncommon to find unscrupulous merchants attempting to sell inferior, domestically made cigars as a finer Cuban brand, thus Cuban cigar manufacturers soon began to utilize paper bands as a deterrent to counterfeiting and fraudulent marketing.

Paper cigar bands became increasingly common in the following decades as most cigar manufacturers began wrapping each cigar in a small paper band imprinted with their own logo or emblem. The advent of the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian era brought together a number of factors that aided in a rapid expansion of the cigar industry such that by 1870 cigars had surpassed all other tobacco products in sales. Cigars became widely accepted as a relatively inexpensive status symbol.

On the political front, the displacement of many skilled cigarmakers from Cuba during the civil unrest that accompanied that country's Ten Year War (1868-1878) provided the foundation for the establishment of a flourishing cigar industry in southern Florida. By the late 1800s Key West had become one of the leading ports in the U.S. and cigar manufacturing had become Florida's leading industry, its products made more competitive by the lack of the import tax levied against Cuban produced cigars. By the end of the 19th century cigar smoking had reached wide popularity and cigar manufacturing was a huge and thriving industry with billions of cigars sold annually. In the U.S. alone, the federal government had registered over 70,000 cigar manufacturers in business, ranging in size from well-established, larger companies to many thousands of small "mom and pop" firms.

Coincident with the rising popularity of cigars were several developments in printing technology that came about as part of the Industrial Revolution. Perfected by the French and Germans in the early 1800s, lithography represented a third, new major type of printing technology as an alternative to relief printing (e.g., movable type) or intaglio (e.g., etching). Synthetic dyes and coloring agents were discovered in Britain in the mid-1800s, and their refinement, development and mass-manufacture by the German chemical industry in the latter half of the century helped pave the way for inexpensive, widespread and elaborate use of color in printed materials via the chromolithographic process. Lithography soon became inexpensive enough to be widely used commercially. Additionally, the technique of embossing paper was developed at a commercial level by the 1880s, as was gilding, i.e., the application to paper of gold leaf, and bronzing, the application to paper of fine bronze powder mixed with lacquer in order to mimic more costly gold leaf.

Along with the popularity of cigars, these various enhancements to the printing process ushered in the "Golden Age" of cigar-related advertising artwork (circa 1890-1920). The huge number of cigar manufacturers and brands also led to an increased need to differentiate one brand from another. The cigar industry was among the first to employ chromolithography, embossing and gilding in advertising artwork, which, along with aggressive promotion and marketing, further stimulated sales of cigars. Cigar bands, and especially cigar box labels from this era characteristically exhibited detailed, high-quality artwork by accomplished professional lithographic artists. Germany was a major source of the finest cigar box labels and cigar bands during this period, and fine work was also produced in Cuba, the Netherlands, and the United States. Many highly skilled lithographers emigrated from Germany to the U.S. during the 1870s to escape the social and economic upheaval that followed Bismarck's political unification efforts in Germany, and many of them found work in prominent U.S. printing firms or formed their own firms.

Additionally, when one recalls that a century ago illiteracy was far more commonplace, the appeal and practicality of pictures, color, and identifiable designs on labels made good commercial advertising sense. Visual differentiation as a means of communication had long been utilized to distinguish denominations of paper currency by producing various sizes, different colors and designs, and is still common today in many regions of the world with high rates of illiteracy, wherein political parties and their candidates customarily are associated with a certain logo or emblem on election ballots. Logos and brand emblems are so commonplace today that they are taken for granted.

Cigar bands often incorporated a design similar to the larger, more elaborate labels on the cigar boxes. Subject matter and imagery varied widely and often reflected contemporary culture and social interests. Just as many commercial products today are decorated with pictures of celebrities, the practice was also common in cigar labeling. Many well known entertainers, actors, and personalities of the day were depicted on cigar bands and box labels, as were were historical figures, politicians, leaders, patriotic themes, cultural heroes, and animals and scenery. Private institutions, clubs, businesses, organizations and even wealthy individuals often had their own "vanity" labels produced, and labels were often made commemorating special events or celebrations.

Since cigar smokers were predominantly men, other common subjects for label art were, not surprisingly, drawn from the then male-oriented worlds of sports, hunting, and the military. Portraits of women were also very common, presumably as a means to attract male customers, but possibly also as a gesture to women smokers.

Because the finest tobaccos traditionally came from the Spanish West Indies where cigar production originated, cigar labels often incorporated Spanish phrases, names or themes to reinforce the perception that cigars from Cuba and the surrounding region were the finest one could purchase. Common phrases included "Flor Fina" (fine flower), suggesting the cigar was made from the choicest tobacco available, "Por la Noblesse" (for the nobility) suggesting quality that would satisfy an aristocrat, "Non Plus Ultra" (none better), and "Vuelta Abajo" referring to the Cuban province that reputedly produced the finest cigar tobacco. Many labels also advertised the quality of a certain cigar brand by reference to Cuba or Havana. Spanish name references adorned many a cigar produced in places like Chicago and Cincinnati, far removed from the Caribbean.

During the "Golden Age", collecting cigar bands became a very popular and inexpensive hobby, especially among children since the colorful bands were often found littering streets and public places, waiting to be picked up. As part of their marketing efforts some manufacturers also produced sets of bands aimed specifically at young collectors and gave them away as promotional items, though the bands themselves were never actually wrapped around a cigar. Cigar bands were often incorporated into "folk art" such as decoupage and collage. A variety of blank albums were manufactured specifically for displaying cigar band collections, much as they are today for coins, stamps and photographs. The hobby of cigar band collecting is known as vitolophily.

Production of detailed and ornate designs on U.S. cigar bands and cigar box labels diminished rapidly in the years following World War I, primarily due to cost cutting in favor of the newly-developed and less expensive four-color photomechanical printing process, a large reduction in the number of U.S. cigar manufacturers via industry consolidations, the introduction of mass-produced, machine-made lower-quality cigars, and declining overall demand for cigars in the face of growing popularity of packaged cigarettes which began to surpass cigars in sales by the early 1920s. Accordingly, by the 1930s cigar labeling and advertising in the U.S. had become noticeably lower in aesthetic quality and more generic in design.

"Seal Skin" cigar band - circa 1900 "Seal Skin" cigar band - circa 1935