The Ornate Beauty of Vintage Cigar Labels

The Ornate Beauty of Vintage Cigar Labels

Cigar labels adorn the antique packaging of premium cigars. They are practically a lost art these days, but in the early 1900s, they set a standard for advertising and design technique even while the artists who crafted them usually went unrecognized.

The work on them can be incredibly intricate, creative, and beautiful, and many people appreciate them enough to preserve them and showcase them in museums or their own homes.

Oftentimes, the lithography used to produce them is of such high quality that, which care, they can look as new today as if you had just opened the box. Here is some historical context to help you appreciate these beautiful works of art.

The History of the Cigar

The Mayans of southern Mexico and Central America may have been the first to smoke tobacco in a form that resembled a rudimentary cigar. However, the practice swiftly spread and may have developed independently in the Caribbean.

By the time Columbus first landed in Cuba, his sailors reported seeing the local Taino people smoking cigars made of dried tobacco wrapped in palm or plantain leaves (differing reports also describe the tobacco being smoked in a pipe). Whatever the case, the practice quickly spread to Europe, and Spain decided to cash in on a commercialized version of cigars by creating cigar factories in Cuba.

While many countries embraced smoking tobacco, Spain attempted to maintain its place as the premier producer of cigars by refining the technique, finding the highest quality tobacco, and wrapping the cigar in tobacco rather than other plant products. It also kept a tight hold on the import and export business of Havana, Cuba.

However, when England captured Havana from Spain and held it for nine months, the international taste for the cigar spread. England opened up more shipping to and from Havana than Spain had ever allowed, and, with increased trade, the cigar found new markets, and its popularity took off.

With those growing markets, the 19th century saw the creation of many of the iconic Cuban and U.S. cigar brands we still know today. And as brands started to do more to compete with one another, their marketing techniques expanded, including through the creation of beautiful cigar labels. These labels sometimes included well-known fictional characters of the day. Others used beautiful faces to draw the eyes of the viewer. Some became the image of a cigar brand across years, and others were simply humorous or beautiful pictures that lifted the cigar box from being an ordinary container into being a small work of art.

In the early 20th century, U.S. cigar production started to take over the market because domestic cigars sold more cheaply than imported Cuban ones, but both countries contributed eye-catching labels worth collecting. The U.S. hit a production high in 1920, but prohibition and the depression of the 1930s badly impacted the industry.

What Stone Lithography Did for Cigar Labels

In 1798, a man named Aloys Senfelder invented the lithographic printing process in Prague. Though Senfelder’s first loves were acting and playwriting, he turned to lithography as a way to print his plays independently. And while he never became well-known as a playwright, he would be known for his invention, which used grease-based ink on Bavarian limestone. It proved an excellent means of creating vibrantly colorful prints. The use of stone (rather than copper or steel engravings) meant that the images retained their crispness and quality across many printings.

By the mid-1800s, lithography enabled cigar makers to include colorful labels in and on their boxes that were eye-catching and mass-producible. And by the 1890s, many cigar label producers began to increase the quality of their labels even more by incorporating embossing, which raised portions of the cigar label and coated it with 22k gold leaf or bronze leaf.

Even with the ability to mass-produce these labels, however, the process was expensive and labor-intensive. So, as the cigar market shrank after 1920, the practice was largely replaced with high-speed presses and cheap metal plates, and the range of colors and variations offered by the stone lithographic process disappeared.

Now, these antique cigar labels represent not only the artistic ideals and images of an era but also the capabilities of a lost form of high-quality printing.

The Labels as Icons of an Age

Cigar labels were works of art. The labels were originally used to identify the brand and type of cigar, but they soon became a way for cigar makers to advertise their product and associate it with beautiful landscapes, exotic settings, and alluring or comical figures.

Even better, the lithography process gave artists a lot of versatility in creating images because the pictures could include many colors and shades in between. Sometimes designed for humor, sometimes for glamor, the labels are always eye-catching and memorable.

Which cigar labels on our Vintage and Antique Gifts site do you find most memorable and why? Let us know in the comments.

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