Cigar Box Openers

A National Cigar History Museum Exhibit

© Tony Hyman, All rights reserved

Based in part on research and categorization by Mike Schwimmer,

self-published in 1997 as a 43 page photocopy entitled


Unless otherwise noted, all openers are in the NCHM collection.

Two openers added: June 2, 2010

        Although cigar boxes had been around since the early 1800’s, they were not widely available in consumer sizes. Pre-1860 documents suggest only one cigar in ten was purchased in or from a consumer-size box of 25, 50 or 100.  All that changed in 1863 when the need for money to fight the Civil War resulted in a series of tax laws that mandated cigar boxes into universal use. Every cigar after that date had to be packed in and sold from a box. Those Civil War revenue laws required tax stamps to be wrapped around the box, and after 1868, added other labeling and the provision that those stamps must be destroyed when the box was opened.  That same year, 1868, the first cigar box opener was patented.

        A century later, box-opener collector Mike Schwimmer asked: “Why cigar box openers? Pocket knives, table knives, screw drivers and assorted other household implements were available to do the relatively simple job of opening up a wooden cigar box.” He decided, “Yes, and you can cut your fingernails with a scissors, too, but the proper tool always gets the job done best and faster.”

        Cigar box openers were designed to slit the advertising label pasted on the end of the box, irrevocably damage the tax stamp, pry up the nail that sealed the box, and, if desired, pound that nail back in...and to do those tasks quickly and with minimal damage to the box.


    During the next half century, an amazing variety of shapes and sizes, some not  patented, appeared. Most were of steel and had three common characteristics: “First, a tapered edge or blade to slit the tax stamp and decorative labels; second, a small notch to catch the lid nail and pry up the lid; and third, a hammer-like protrusion or a heavy flat surface to pound the lid shut again.”

      In his 1997 treatise, Schwimmer cataloged 160+ different shapes, divided into 15 types, including multi-purpose openers with knives, bottle openers or cigar cutters. I have subdivided or otherwise refined his categories and added two more to include openers that did not contain advertising.

Not surprisingly the 1st patent box opener looks a lot like a pocket knife, every male’s companion. The 1868 patent describes it an improve-ment on a box opener patented in  1864 by being designed specifically for the needs of a cigar seller, notably constantly opening and re-closing boxes. Frequent opening and closing was normal at that time because the humidified showcase in which boxes were displayed open was still a few years away.

LEFT: PIPES & SMOKERS ARTICLES catalog of George Zorn & Co., Philadelphia, 1892.

ABOVE: ad from 1910 Pennsylvania directory of cigar makers.

        So unusual that many box openers collectors haven’t heard of it, let alone seen one, is Takrays’ oddly clever creation, a coin nailed to the top of each box.

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Miscellaneous Left-Overs

Cremo opener illustration copied

from Schwimmer’s book.

         Juliet Capulet, in Romeo and Juliet, said “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

That holds true for cigar box openers as well. 

        This system of classification Mike Schwimmer developed and I modified isn’t to restrict you...but simply to give you an idea of what’s available in the world of cigar box openers and to encourage you to keep looking. In the two months I worked on this exhibit I discovered two entirely new shapes and one new category Schwimmer hadn’t catalogued.

        Frankly, I don’t agree with the categories in which Mike put some openers, and I’m certain he wouldn’t like where I’ve moved others. And if you don’t agree with one or both of us...well, remember Juliet’s question.

        One of the great treasures of the Spanish language is the phrase ¿Quien sabe? “Who knows?” and said with an appropriate shrug of the shoulders, “Who cares?”

        Have fun collecting.


Hook Heads


        The large side-notch earned these the name “Hook head” from Schwimmer, who found nine different but similar designs, all measuring between 4½” and 5”. The greatest differences are often in the ring opener, two different designs of which can be seen here. Slight differences in the hammer head and the size of the bossed area suggest two different manufacturers may be involved. Half of the six bottle openers have tangs. Three of the hook heads have round rings unusable for opening bottles.


Ring Bottle Openers

    The 7¾” long openers pictured are the most common, but twelve other styles of box opener have bottle opening rings. Openers as small as 3” including many in flat steel can be found, including some non-traditional shapes.

            Illustration lower right copied from Schwimmer’s book.


Combination Box Opener - Cigar Cutter

     Another advertising-free

category Schwimmer ignored is that of the cigar cutter with box opener. The two in the NCM collection are too heavy or too ornate to be carried, obviously intended as desk pieces. The grouse attached to the sterling cutter would snag in pockets.

    No one knows what other beautiful cutter - openers you can find.


Home Use

        No records exist to tell us how many of these sterling silver household openers were made and by whom.  Schwimmer didn’t catalogue them since opener collectors tend to pass them by because they have no advertising on them. Monogram on bottom opener suggests it’s part of a set.

Pocket Knives

          Nearly a dozen different pocket knives have been discovered with box openers, the one directly below being the most famous because it was the first. The Wiedman Box Co., bottom left, is seen the most often, but is still scarce. The half moon notch in the middle of MI-LOLA is to enable the end of a cigar to be cut off.

        A variety of handle shapes and materials are used, most with incised letters. Pocket knives tend to be small, from 3” to 3 ¾” long.


Butter Knives

         Schwimmer noted only two designs of this very minor and hard-to-find type of opener, each with one minor variation. They range from 4½ to 6” and receive their name from the spatula shaped head on a narrow neck.

        It would be equally valid to put the top one in Misc and the others in Separate Handles, but I left his classification and name because Mike had a lot more experience than I with openers and there could be something I’m missing.

Top opener illustration copied from Schwimmer.


Separate Handles

          The only unifying characteristic of this type opener is that it is made in two or three pieces rather than one and that a two part handle of wood, plastic, ivory, mother-of-pearl or other material is riveted or pinned on. Handles of antler and tusk ivory are made in one piece.

        Lettering varies: the PARTAGAS is on the blade, the EMANELO on the head, the REMICK’S on the handle, the HEMMETER’S on the shaft.  Among the dozen or so that have been catalogued, lengths vary from 5½” to 7”. The category includes openers with hammers, bottle openers, and serrated blades.     


        Catalogs from the manufacturers of these tools give insight into how they were used and distributed. In 1892, George Zorn & Company calls a box opener a necessary “cigar dealer’s companion.”  In 1907, the nation’s largest maker of cigar store cutters and lighters was the Cincinnati based Brunhoff Manufacturing Company, founded by the prolific inventor, Edward Brunhoff, who offered a huge range of tobacconist and advertising devices of his own creation. He urged the use of box openers as “a useful substitute for a business card - one that will not be thrown away.” That same year, the Erie Specialty Co. called a box opener “the cheapest and most useful article you can use for keeping your brand of cigars or your name constantly before  your trade.” Brunhoff advised they “cost little, but help much in getting the goodwill of the man behind the counter.”

Brunhoff Manufacturing Co. catalog page from 1925 photographed from a page in Mike Schwimmer’s 1997 seminal treatise on box openers. Titles in red are added by me to identify the classification Mike assigned to each of the openers illustrated.


        Unlike bottle openers that were given out free to the consumer almost any  time he asked for one, cigar box openers were an item for the cigar retailer and only secondarily for the cigar smoker. Most cigar box openers were imprinted with the names of distributors, manufacturers or cigar brands. Salesmen gave them to their retail outlets, some of whom undoubtedly gave extras, or those they didn’t like to use, to their box-buying customers. Miller, Dubrul and Peters was the worlds largest supplier of tools to make cigars, but by the 20th century offered only the simplest of box openers to the cigar trade. Brunhoff, Erie Specialty Co. and others offered a wider array. The sample page from the Brunhoff catalog (above) bears dramatic witness to Edward Brunhoff’s inventiveness and the choices of advertising gimmick available.


MD & P


        Box openers designed for home or personal use did exist, but are much more rare today. Men didn’t carry boxes of cigars around with them on the streets or on the job, so personal pocket versions were in little demand. Wealthier smokers who ordered cigars in quantity could buy decorative box openers, including those made in sterling silver with handles to match the family’s tableware, for use when offering guests an after-dinner smoke from a fresh box of Havanas.


Ad from 1903 trade journal offering cigar manufacturers

the opportunity to add their built-in box opener. 



Types of Cigar Box Openers

Established by Mike Schwimmer and modified by Tony Hyman.

Suggestions always welcome.

Single headed hammers            Two headed hammers                Novelty hammers

Hatchets & axes                          Hatchets w/bottle openers        Nails

Bars & blades                              Square ends                               Separate handles

Butter knives                               Pocket knives                             Home use

Combination w/cutters               Ring bottle openers                   Hook heads

Horse heads                                Round heads                              Left-overs

     Collectors approach their hobby with more than one strategy. Some collect as many different shapes as they can find, others want different brand names, others collect regionally, seeking makers and distributors from their home states.

Single Headed Hammers

      Schwimmer identified 12 different styles from 4½” to 7” long. Heads of various sizes and shapes, all but one with a blade at the end of the handle. Lettering can be raised, flat or incised and in many different type faces and sizes.

        Examples of the most common style of single headed hammer opener are seen to the left. Two different manufacturers made the ones displayed.


Two Headed Hammers

        Eighteen different shapes are reported ranging from 4”  to 5” most of which have a nail puller at the end of the handle like the most common style seen at left. A variety of hammer heads and nail pullers adds interest as does the occasional bottle opener. Lettering can be raised, flat or incised. 



Novelty Hammers

        If Novelties are defined as openers with figural heads, you are looking at all of them that

Schwimmer and I know and own.  We’d love to hear from you if you know of others.



Hatchets & Axes

        Hatchets range in size from 5” to 7” and come with full triangular heads like seen here or flat-faced heads like seen below.  They can have raised, flat, or incised lettering on the handle or blade. Most have the nail notch on the blade. They are known with and without holes in the handle.  Schwimmer’s seven types  did not include the next one.

        This axe in unusual in that it’s stamped of cut from 1/8” sheet steel, has an inset nail notch and the metal hammer head is riveted on. The littering is incised. “Judge Gainey Cigars” is stamped on the opposite side.


Hatchets & Axes with Bottle Openers

          Hatchets with bottle openers at the end of their handles tend to be small, from 4½” to 5” with a various shapes of both head and opener.

        Lettering is on the handle and can be raised, flat or incised.  Eight shapes have been recorded as have at least five variations of the opener. Both hatchet and rounded axe-heads are found.

Lower opener not in the NCM collection.



        Only one type of opener is made from an actual nail, as seen here. Pressed, notched and ground sharp for a few cents while you waited at the Columbian Exposition of 1891. Schwimmer called the common opener (lower right) a nail because of its elongated round shape and somewhat nail-like head.  Five minor variations in loop shape, pattern, and lettering exist. All have raised lettering.

Bars  &  Blades

        The least expensive in 1900, so the most common today, is the Bar or Blade opener made of heavy steel.

Known in 20 shapes from 3” to 6 ¾” it will be found with raised, incised or flat lettering. All have the blade on one end, a few have holes, and a few, including one produced by Miller Dubrul and Peters, have hammer heads attached on the top middle. Mike defined Bars as being one-eighth of an inch thick or more, Blades being the same shape, but thinner. The larger Bars were popular with some retailers and wholesalers because their strength allowed them to be used as a chisel when opening crates. A wide variety of lettering and styles will be found including raised, flat and incised.


Square Ends

          Only four variants of this somewhat hard-to-find type of opener were catalogued. Ranging in size from 5” to 5¾”  they are characterized by the flat spade-shape on one end and the cutter blade on the other. The edge of the flat end is sometimes a match striker. All types of lettering have been found. This opener is unusual as it’s from a Canadian company.

       Schwimmer named these small,

I think ugly, little (4” to 4¾”) openers “Horse Heads” because of their elongation. He found only four variations of shape, but raised, flat, and incised lettering. Nickel plating is not holding

up very well on this example.

Horse Heads

Round Heads

          The name would seem to clearly define the category and the one of his eleven that I chose to illustrate obviously fits. But there seems to be a wide assortment Schwimmer assigned into this type, a catch-all approaching Miscellaneous in its diversity, a good many of which, I must admit, I am unclear as to why they are there.  All sizes from 3” to 6” and a wide range of shapes, materials and lettering are included.  If your box opener doesn’t fit one of the first 16 categories, and you fell impelled to give it a name, call it a “Round Head” or a Miscellaneous.

None of these 3 are in the NCHM collection.


  The “old way” shown on Takrays letterhead depicts the box being ripped open by hand. The smoker’s grimace is replace by a smile when the handy coin is used, avoiding broken finger nails.

    Takrays’ openers often go unrecognized, even by experienced token collectors. Look for a well-centered hole at the bottom of a

7/8” token. Above is Takrays’ sample sent to

cigar and box makers.

    Sanchez y Haya was the most prominent brand to adopt the tool for a while. Cuban-American Company, Ferdinand Hirsch, John Merriam & Co. and S. Henry & Sons are cited in Takrays’ ads as coin-opener adopters.

    Little is known of how makers, wholesalers and retailers responded to the invention. It doesn’t seem to have been around very long but details of its ultimate fate have not as yet been discovered.

       The last box-opener patent was issued, according to Schwimmer, in 1916,  which seems logical, given the dramatic changes that took place in the industry during the post-war years. The increased use of cigarettes, the greater use of tin and cardboard in box making, and the decline in the sales of cigars by the box all played a role in bringing the era of the traditional cigar box opener to a close.

By World War Two, box openers had become a thing of the past.