Railroads & Cigars

© Tony Hyman.

All rights reserved. Inquiries welcome.

Uploaded October 2008

Latest update: November 17, 2011

Longer trips and more travelers led  George Pullman, in 1857, to invent the sleeping car. People had been snoozing on trains since the first engine hit the rails, but ordinary passenger cars were uncomfortable, and until Pullman, not designed for sleep. Cars that helped customers get a good night’s rest were a dream come true for the long distance traveler. It wasn’t long before the wealthy were ordering their own custom built Pullman cars complete with beds, bars and bathtubs. Hundreds of other rail-related inventions improved the safety, convenience, and comfort of rail travel. Things we take for granted today, like uniform time zones, also came about in part because of the demands of transcontinental scheduling.

[6253]  PULLMAN car illustration from cigar box used by the Pullman Cigar Company in Roslindale, Mass., 1953.

            PRIVATE CAR label not in the NCM collection.


         As America grew, and the farmlands of the Midwest and West were developed, the railroads accompanied them, reaching all the way to the Pacific Coast only four years after the Civil War.  Everywhere railroads went they carried more than tobacco leaf and finished cigars; they also transported traveling salesmen by the thousands, then tens of thousands, taking orders for the consumer goods those trains could easily bring to the frontiers.

        The impact of railroads on American life is difficult for people today to comprehend. Railroads made possible the safe speedy spread of goods and people in a manner never before seen. They enabled adventurous men and woman on their never-ending search for greener pastures. The rails, roads, and canals led to opportunity and the possibility of a new life. Cigar making was frequently a one-man business and cigarmakers notoriously footloose, so the steam train became their golden chariot in their search for new and heavier smokers. Unfortunately for them, the railroads also enabled the larger cigar companies to put their representatives on the road and big-factory mass produced products to compete with those small local factories.

  Shippers using railroads dealt with the ultimate in fine print. This is the reverse of a receipt for shipping 10 crates of tobac-co from Ohio to Baltimore. Each 4.75” column contains 208 lines of “not our fault” and “not our responsibility” in type so tiny a nickel covers 100 words.

  Like mail, rail shipments were Federally protected. 

  Edward Piteker (left) and Frederick Schwenke wait for The Colonial RR, with a mixed load of luggage and light freight. September 26, 1912.

   Tags were enclosed in envelopes and tied to trunks and crates which were also marked in chalk

  Ohio farmers who had recently begun planting cigar tobacco were delighted with the B & O’s capabilities, and even happier a few years later when the Erie and Kalamazoo line linking Toledo with Michigan was completed. That and similar rail and canal construction during the 1830’s allowed Ohio growers to market 300% more leaf by the end of the decade. During the 1840’s, they tripled sales again, shipping more than 13,000 barrels of tobacco weighing more than a half ton each. But they weren’t the only growers to profit from the latest in transportation technology.

    New England’s first of many rail lines began operations in 1835 just in time to help spread Connecticut seed leaf, the country’s first high quality cigar wrapper. Before the Civil War engulfed the nation in 1861, growers in Massachusetts, New York, Kentucky and Maryland were using railroads, canals and the Mississippi river to ship cigar leaf to New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans and other cigar manufacturing centers. More than 2,000 cigar factories were in operation at the beginning of the War.


The search for cheaper shipping

  Experiments had been going on for a few years when, in 1832, steam driven railroads were proven once-and-for-all to be fiscally practical. A coal powered steam engine on the two-year-old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad hauled 50 tons over a distance of 40 miles at a speed of 12 to 15 mph. The engine burned $16 worth of coal compared to the $33 and 42 horses it had taken to move that much freight over the same tracks the previous year. The timing couldn't have been better for the growing U.S. cigar industry.

This ad from the New York Evening Star for March 27, 1838, gives a hint of how well developed steam railroads had become less than a decade after the first commercial freight and passenger line was established. The train lines usually connected to ferries, horse-drawn stage coaches or river boats for longer journeys. The country’s longest railroad was 167 miles in South Carolina. The use of corner vignettes in early 19th century newspapers made it easier for readers to find the type of ad they sought.


1835 magazine

[12645]  Since most men smoked, it wasn’t unusual for a train to have more than one car set aside exclusively for smokers, complete with white-coated attendants ready to offer a cigar or libation. The smoking cars on the Chicago Limited of the 1890’s offered bathtubs, a barber, and luxuriously upholstered chairs about which one writer claimed “the traveller who cannot be comfortable in one of them is hard indeed to satisfy.” The cars were also well stocked with the latest copies of JUDGE, HARPER’S, LESLIE’S, and other weekly newspapers. For those with more time, books were available, described by a HARPER’S writer as being “in striking contrast to those vapid and lurid tales that the book peddler on an ordinary train recommends with so much voluble assurance.”  Smoking cars were required by law on British trains way back in 1869.


The second half of the 1800’s was the era of huge government land grants to railroads to encourage expansion into the West and Midwest. Usually the Federal government gave railroad companies alternate sections of public land, twenty to fifty miles worth for every mile of track they laid. Railroads sold these lands to speculators and homesteaders, often recruited from Europe. As so often happens, one technological or social change breeds others. As railroads developed so did commerce and the spread of increasingly mass produced consumer goods (including cigars) and the printing technologies to package them. The land give-aways and gradual population shifts created demand for the development of communications, newspapers, and maps.

In the days when people spent their lives within 20 miles of where they were born, maps were a luxury. Not so once ordinary people began traveling hundreds of miles for business and vacations or bought land a thousand miles from home. The demand for railroad maps and for labels to identify the food and cigars now being shipped nationwide spurred printing technology throughout the century.

      Given their role in spreading cigars nationwide, it’s no wonder railroads and railroad themes decorated cigar boxes by the score. Just about every post-Civil War rail line in America was depicted, usually by small local cigarmakers in one of the towns the line passed through. It’s not the intent of this exhibit to provide a history of those railroads, but rather to enable the visitor to see some of the variety.



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