The first RED DOT cigar made it’s on-counter debut around 1905, the brainchild and blend of the Barnes-Smith Co., a small 20 man cigar factory recently-established in Binghamton, New York. The so-called “Parlor City” was a prime location for a factory, right in the middle of New York State’s top tobacco region. Blue collar and anti-union, the city had rail and canals to move goods. What passed for roads in 1905 were good enough to permit local deliveries to be made by auto, the same way most cigar salesmen were beginning to get around.  

Cigar-making was a marginal business for the small factory. Pennies mattered.  Locating close to where cigar tobacco was grown saved both transportation and broker costs. By the time the smoking boom hit full stride in the 1880s, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Binghamton (listed in order of number of factories) were already cigar making centers thanks to the local tobacco and easy access to canals, the cheapest way to ship. When Barnes-Smith opened their modest operation on Water Street they became the 80th company that year to take out an annual Federal license to make cigars in Binghamton. 

Barnes-Smith and RED DOT quickly found a strong market for what fans described as the cigar’s lightly sweet ever-so-slightly minty blend. Barnes-Smith’s prime location and almost immediate success caught the attention of the Tobacco Trust. That’s not often a good thing to catch.

RED DOT became one of 250+ nickel brands gobbled up in the  Tobacco Trust’s campaign to take control of the cigar industry. Starting in 1890, “Buck” Duke had built an intricate combine of Companies that together controlled at least 90% of domestic cigarettes, smoking tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff, as well as half the entire Cuban cigar industry. Duke's combine (aka American Tobacco Company or Tobacco Trust) thought he could control domestic cigar manufacturing as well. He gave it a good try.

To help organize all the different types of companies and brands the Trust was acquiring, in 1907 they created a new branch called the “Federal Cigar Company” to manage all the lower priced cigar brands owned by the Trust, including cheroots, stogies, and little cigars. That included Barnes-Smith and RED DOT.  A scant four years later when the Supreme Court ordered the Trust dismantled, Federal Cigar Co.’s factories in Red Lion, Franklintown, Wrightsville and York, as well as all their former brands, were allotted to P. Lorillard. Within a few years, that master-marketer had turned the Trust’s low-end holdings into a tremendously popular group of brands.

RED DOT was not among them.

        Sometime in the teens, RED DOT, under independent  management, began offering “Junior Size” cigars (under 4”) priced at 10 for 50¢ in a bright red and yellow square-cornered hinged tin box packed in the standard two rows of 5. The bright red dot circumscribed a serene-but-slightly-sexy woman's face stood out on  counters of the decade. The brand, with its small sweet cigars increased in popularity.

Before its tenth anniversary RED DOT would have yet a fourth owner. Lorillard didn’t envision all their Trust acquisitions fitting into their marketing plan, so sold  what remained of Federal, nee Barnes-Smith, including RED DOT. Federal continued selling RED DOT Juniors under the Barnes-Smith name in the identical square-corner tin box into the 1920’s but Company execs decided some new, larger,

You have to imagine this label without the “Now 2 for 5¢” (a 1942 addition) as I can’t find an earlier box to photograph.

cigars were needed to round out their catalog and increase per-unit value. Designers were given the task of coming up with a new logo for RED DOT to emphasize the "newness" of the larger line. In keeping with it's brand name, designers kept dot-woman, but did away with the text, rays and banners. They modernized the look by replacing "all the clutter"  with an all white background; the new, more dramatic, and easily recognizable label became an industry legend. 

The 1920s began four decades of industry-wide non-stop buying of cigar factories and brands, selling factories and brands, closing many, and merging others. Hundreds of good quality domestic cigar brands found themselves pawns in the consolidations and the inevitable winnowing.  RED DOT survived, still part of Federal, itself a part of larger corporations. The total number of U.S. cigar factories had plummeted by 90% between 1900 and 1960 and the number of brands even more.  RED DOT’s 10¢ and less price along with its distinctive slightly sweet taste and recognizable logo kept it in cigar store counters year after year. The above is from 1952.

Once it had been stripped to the dot-face essentials, the box took on a timeless look enabling the new package to be used for three decades with no major makeover. But modern times (the 60s) demanded change and the original dot-girl was dropped in favor of a more up-to-date (50s style) woman, a Gayle Storm look-alike. She too was replaced for a short while by a
cute cow-girl, then done away with, allowed to pass on to that
great smoke shop in the sky.

DWG and RG Dun each owned the brand for a while, but RED DOT is now part of National Cigar Corporation, owner of nearly twenty other brands from the early 1900s including two more than 150 years old. RED DOT to this day lives up to its “Truly Different” trademark.

For the record, critics who have smoked RED DOTs that have aged for 50 or more years report the brand holds up very well, its honey-mint flavor still a distinctive taste treat.


Red Dot

Historical Note

A Cigar History Museum Exclusive 

© Tony Hyman, All rights reserved

Uploaded  June  10, 2012