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The History (And Value) Of Cigar Bands

Jan 18, 2008
For many cigar smokers, the small paper band encircling their stogy is just a piece of trash, to be discarded along with the shrinkwrap around the box. But for others that cigar band is a bit of history - a collectible that adds immeasurably to the romance and mystique of smoking.

What is the cigar band, and how did it become so important? As is so often true when it comes to cigars, the story begins in Cuba - early-19th-century Cuba, to be exact, when that island nation had already come to be recognize as the cigar capital of the world. At that time cigar packaging was minimal - often no more than a wooden barrel or box, with the manufacturer's name inscribed. The cigars themselves were generally left blank. This situation, not surprisingly, created a cheat's paradise, in which cheap European cigars were bundled in boxes with "Cuban" markings on them and sold, domestically, to unsuspecting customers who thought they were getting fine imported Cubans.

Gustave Bock, a Dutch immigrant who owned a cigar factory in Cuba in the 1830s, is credited with being the first to place a paper band around his cigars. (Bock's "cigar band" was just a paper ring with his signature on it.)

Many other makers adopted this practice, to the point where, by 1855, most Cuban cigar exporters were using them. These bands cut down on instances of counterfeiting while giving cigar manufacturers a way to increase name recognition and loyalty.

The practice spread from Cuba to cigar makers everywhere, and its popularity was encouraged by breakthroughs in printing technology, which developed alongside changes in the economy of Europe and the Americas that favored cigar smoking. Specifically, cheap color printing (through chromolithographic processes developed in Germany) was made widely available during the latter part of the century, and paper-embossing followed in the 1880s.

Between the expansion of the cigar industry and the new possibilities developed by the printing industry, a "Golden Age" of cigar advertising was almost guaranteed, and that's what followed. Cigar makers began working not only to manufacture their cigars, but to differentiate their products from others. The late 19th and early 20th centuries featured elaborate, distinctive cigar box and cigar band artwork, often produced by highly-regarded commercial artists. These well-wrought bands featured images of famous figures of the day, historical figures, nationalistic imagery, nature scenes and animals. As with today's postage stamps, special bands would be made to commemorate special events.

And, also like stamps, the bands had that combination of ephemerality and workmanship that so often draws collectors. While they were often well-made, they weren't intended to last - so they gave collectors a challenge, as baseball cards, comic books and cheap children's toys would later in the 20th century. And they always gave off a whiff of nostalgia, reminding dedicated smokers of good times shared with a cigar and a friend.

Children also found these bands attractive, since they were often left discarded on streets during the height of cigar-smoking's popularity. Manufacturers even made "albums" with blank pages in which a person's cigar band collection could be displayed - the forerunner of those plastic display sheets that every sports-card collector knows so well.

Adding to the boom in band collecting, some cigar makers gave premiums to customers who turned in a certain number of bands - everything from a set of children's silverware (50 bands) to a Scientific American subscription (600 bands) to a baby grand piano (180,000), according to the American Cigar Co. catalog of 1904. (Those of you who used to collect Marlboro Miles during the 1990s should be feeling deja vu right about now.)

After World War I, cigars fell in popularity relative to cigarettes. Cigar makers stopped putting as much energy into the production of attractive cigar bands, as it became more necessary to cut costs. Cigar bands - at least in the US - grew generic, boring. The cost cut wasn't enough - many thousands of cigar companies closed up shop for good in the US during the '20s and '30s.

Band collecting continues in the US among a hardy group mostly consisting of old-timers and nostalgia buffs, but in Europe it remains a thriving hobby, and cigar makers there continue to print colorful but cheap bands, some of which come as part of a series (again like stamps), others of which are created specifically for collectors.
About the Author
CigarFox provides the finest cigars that include cigar brands like cohiba, gurkha and many more. Other cigar products include cigar humidors, cigar boxes, and cigar accessories like Zippo Lighters.
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