Censorship and Cigar Boxes

A National Cigar History Museum Exhibit

© Tony Hyman

Modified: January 20, 2011

    The Federal Government of the 1800’s cared more about collecting taxes than it did about regulating public morals. Page after page of tax regulations were designed to help the Federal Government skim part of every cigar factory’s slim earnings. Laws were intended to make sure the government got a share of every box of cigars as it left the factory. Fortunately for the industry, the Government didn’t seem to care what happened to the box after that. No laws were passed about the box itself, other than dictating how many cigars it could hold. Cigar makers and sellers were free to decorate those boxes with any name, claim and picture they wanted.

        The cigar industry intuitively followed the prime directive of successful marketing: “give the people what they want.”  Number one on most men’s wants list was pretty girls.  Pretty girls (women were called “girls” then and will be in accounts of then) ... Pretty girls appeared on millions of cigar boxes between 1860 and 1960. Considering how much men liked their women naked, it’s surprising how seldom cigar box girls were undressed, or, perhaps, how few boxes featuring nudes survived. Breasts did appear on boxes in allegorical or ethnic scenes, but seldom otherwise. Plenty of other interesting images appeared on 19th century boxes that would be unacceptable today.

        Cigar box pictures and themes have always been chosen in accordance with acceptable public morals, and the definition of moral changes over time. What was acceptable in one era wasn’t in another. Cigar boxes that have survived bear silent witness to the fact we’ve apparently gotten more prudish rather than less. Yes, we say the dreaded F word in public more, but today’s merchants would face serious consumer rebellion if they put some of the following images on public view today.


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As Clever as Brand Wording Gets

      African-Americans have long been stereotyped as fancy dressers, the theme of this cigar box and a good many more.  But the illustration is not what led me to buy this c.1904 box by the Goshen Cigar Co., Goshen, Indiana (Fact. 264, 6th IN).           [4591]

Picture this tobacco counter scene:

    Customer: “Give me a good nickel cigar.”

    Clerk:  “What brand would you like?”

    Customer:  “Damned if I know.”

    Clerk: “Here you are...”

Or this scene in a wholesaler’s office:

    Owner: “What’ll we call that new cigar?”

    His partner: “Damned if I know.”

    Owner: “Sounds good to me.”


A Damn Good Smoke Has Always Been Rare

    Swear words have become common place on TV and print. Damns and hells abound. But you won’t find a product advertising itself as “damn good” today. Apparently cursing was not approved on products a century ago either according to Mr. Beaver’s clever dodge on this brand custom made for him by the Martinez Cigar Co. of Mobile, Alabama in 1912.





An Old Saying, But Not On a Box

    You all know someone whose life is one continual “If only this” or “If only that.” In my Navy days of the 1950’s we had a rejoinder for those perennial excuse makers. This 1904 cigar box proves that our comeback was at least a half-century from originality.  “If the dog hadn’t stopped to shit he would have caught the rabbit” is unlikely to decorate a retailer’s shelf today. There must be some sort of story behind the creation of this wonderful box, one of my favorites. Did Cigar maker Howard S. Hartman (Fact. 251, 9th PA) come up with the idea, or was this a special order by a customer either celebrating good fortune or ridiculing a friend?  ¿Quien sabe? We’ll never know.



Send a Message to your Friends

   A pre-WWI cigar factory gave away this cardboard advertising sign to retailers expecting it to be hung even though no calendar was attached.

   Have you seen anything like it hanging in a store recently?  Not likely. Peeing on your friends is no longer considered publicly funny.



No More Christmas Greetings from the Northeast


    A little boy writes Merry Christmas greetings in festive holiday yellow.

     An outer label is used as an inner on this small book-shaped box of 12 cigars intended as a Christmas gift for a man with a sense of humor.

     This was a label company’s stock Christmas offering in 1905 when writing your name in the snow was considered a joke. You may still find the feat funny, even accomplish it, but you may not picture it on any product label. Today, pee is out.



IDLE HOUR’s  Home Censorship

    A cute piece of personal censorship from the 1880’s. A little girl, her mom or perhaps a doting dad, used crepe paper to make a cigar box safe for a child’s eyes.  I bought the censored box in Western New York state in the 1970’s, the uncensored version 30 years of looking later, on the web. The label was used by different makers.

        Top:  W.R. Wollastone, Dayton, Ohio (Factory 497, 1st Dist. OH), 1883.    [4543]  [4544]

        Bottom: Towne, Fuller & Co., Springfield, Mass. (Fact. 27, 10th Dist. MA) with 150 rollers,            

            Massachusetts’ second largest cigar factory, user of numerous fancy boxes seen in the NCM’s

            Novelty exhibit. c1886.    [4545]


THORA’s Disappearing Breasts


The longest-running cigar box pin-up was J.E. Rauh’s Milwaukee made THORA, whose physiognomy

and dress undergo subtle modesty changes between 1937 and 1948.     [7842]     [7843]

      Cigar-store window display, circa 1905, featuring boxes of R-B 5¢ cigars. Centered among the stacks of black boxes were bright  red tin signs (right) featuring the tush-display of a young child of indeterminate sex and the slogan “Daddy wants an R-B.”

    After the Trust menace passed,

along came box re-design and longer clothes, suiting the overt puritanism of the prohibition era.

    Cigars by Garman Cigar Co.,

Fact. 1002, 9th Dist. (Ephrata), PA.

store     [8229]    

tin box  [4563]

tin sign [4540]

die-cut  [4541]


R-B’s  Butt-nekkid Child

   Far worse by today’s standards.

Can you imagine the outcry if any

of today’s retailers hung this sign

featuring naked children lighting

the roué’s cigar? He’d be in jail

if his customers didn’t beat him

to death first.

    American continued to use

Hilson’s name after they bought

the factory and its brands so the

date of this sign is not known.

The gentleman smoker was

introduced in the 1890’s, predating

American’s take-over.

    This 11” x 14” cardboard sign is a rare

and desirable piece of advertising art.




American changed the advertising emphasis, focussing on a man of the world rather than nudes.
    Sometime after the painting and hotel were sold, American Tobacco Co. bought Foster-Hilson.

The painting remained unscathed, but not the cigar label. Corporate America demonstrated its concern for public morals, if not art, by adding its own touch to the label.        [4527]                [4531]

The painting’s fame continued as Hilson used it for the inner label of their cigar, which became a national brand packed in tin and wood. A cardboard deeply embossed 11”x14” 3-D sign also used the image, reversed for technical reasons.

[4535]          [4528]


  In the 1880’s, Stokes hung in his bar Adolph Bouguereau’s “Nymphs and Satyr” a life size, nearly 12-foot tall painting featuring four life-like nudes, a masterpiece that became a hot tourist attraction to the great annoyance of local moralists. A famous cartoon showed a bum leaning against the bar lamenting to the bartender  “I’ve been looking all over the world for that creek, but darned if I can find it.”

    In 1901, Stokes died and his art collection, including this painting, was sold for around a quarter million dollars. Nymphs and Satyr promptly disappeared, not to be publicly seen until 1943 when it turned up in a Manhattan ware-house.  The hotel fared little better, closing in 1911.



Hoffman House’s Nudes 

    Ed Stokes shot financier Jim Fisk in an argument over a woman, did time in Sing-Sing prison, got out and ended up owning the Hoffman House, an upscale hotel at the corner of 25th and Broadway in New York.

    The hotel became the unofficial head-quarters of NY city’s Republican party and the bar a hang out for the city’s wealthy.   

The bar was illustrated on this end label of a 1890’s box of HOFFMAN HOUSE cigars, made by Foster-Hilson (Fact. 1, 3rd NYC) a giant 700 roller factory located on 39th Street.  [4526]   


sample box [4536]    end label [4532]    band [4538]    newspaper ad [4533]