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In the late 1800s, cigar labels were embossed and gilded with gold leaf or bronzing.

In the late 1800s, cigar labels were embossed and gilded with gold leaf or bronzing.

The rationale for eye-catching, well-designed fruit box labels was to create interest and brand loyalty in the marketplace—whether it was for fruit brokers or the ultimate consumer. Such a marketing technique was used before the advent of the box label in the early 1900s and continues today with a variety of products.

Similar labeling techniques have been used in the sale of cigars, which were once made in small hometown factories across the country. By 1905, there were 70,000 small cigar factories registered with the U.S. government and as many as 30,000 more that never bothered to register.  Even the lowliest immigrant or anyone with almost no capital could, for just a few dollars, buy a cutting board and knife, a few hands of dried tobacco, some boxes, and a clever label, and start a business.

Tobacco was unknown in Europe before Christopher ­Columbus explored the West Indies in 1492 and brought back the first tobacco leaves to Spain. Romano Parro, a Spanish monk who accompanied Columbus on his second trip to the New World, was the first to write about tobacco in his book Indian Rituals. Parro called the plant by its native name “cohabba” or “guioja,” and leaves were smoked in forked pipes called tobacca or tabacca. The Spanish called the leaves yerba sancta (holy herb), and thus the word tobacco as used today probably comes from the pipe name rather than the traditional plant name.

Another of Columbus’s crew members, Rodrigo de Jerez, has the dubious distinction of being one of the first people to be persecuted for tobacco smoking. He was arrested while strolling down the street in Spain “…with this strange firebrand in his mouth and blowing smoke out of his nose.” The Spanish Inquisition, always looking for incidents of religious blasphemy, reasoned that anyone who blew smoke out his nose had to be in league with the devil; Rodrigo de Jerez was sentenced to seven years in prison.

These colorful and unique pieces of paper have been ­produced since the mid-1800s, though they didn’t achieve ­popularity as collectibles until the late 1970s. The golden age of labels began in the 1890s when lithographers introduced a new step in the printing process to give cigar labels a three-dimensional effect. Brass embossing dies were engraved to coincide with the image on the label; a raised “male” die and a depressed “female” die were aligned with the image in a 30-ton press to permanently emboss the label with a three-dimensional result.

Another process, introduced and coordinated with this embossing, was the art of gilding, which used either genuine gold leaf or bronzing. The period 1890 to 1920 is considered to be the period that produced the best of the cigar label art.

An example of a cigar business in Washington State was the Moxee Plantation, located just east of the present-day city of Yakima. In the 1880s, ­Alexander Graham Bell (the man credited with inventing the telephone), his wife, and his father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard (founder of the National Geographic Society), were the principal investors in this 6,000-acre ranch. One of the crops on which they staked future profit was tobacco. There is evidence that the company also made cigars as Mrs. Bell’s correspondence to her husband states that she was making a trip to Portland, Oregon, to buy labels and “little square boxes.” The labels used by the plantation included Seal of Washington 1890, Blossom, Flora de Moxee, and Flora de Yakima. None of these are known to have survived, and should anyone know of one, it would be a great discovery.

The story of cigar label collecting would not be complete without noting the role of a major retailer and Fortune 500 companies in being the first to recognize the unique appeal of these wonderful pieces of fine lithography. During the 1978 Christmas season, three Bloomingdale’s department stores developed framed sets of labels which sold for $79.95. At the same time, the 3M Company, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Mead Paper Company, based in Dayton, Ohio, gave away hundreds of framed labels as executive gifts to their most important clients.  This led to a September 7, 1979, feature story in the Wall Street Journal about the explosive growth in the collecting of cigar box labels. A new collectible, a close cousin to the fruit box label, was born.