Cigar Box
Article by Sheldon Posen

n 1893, six men from Zorra Township in south-western Ontario, veterans of the region’s famed Highland Games, beat all comers at the Chicago World’s Fair and went home with the cup. In proud commemoration, the local Woodstock Cigar Manufacturing Company created a new brand, The Tug. They packed the cigars in boxes with a custom-designed, full colour, inner label. It shows a line of five brawny men in matching blue jerseys holding the end of a thick rope, with their white sweatered, red-tied captain standing behind them. At their feet are printed the men’s names, a picture of their silver trophy, and their title: Zorra Tug of War Team–Champions of America. If empty cigar boxes commonly store material things like fishing lures or children’s marbles, this one stores something abstract: individual identity, local boosterism, regional sport and ethnicity, contemporary costume and appearance, and national patriotism, circa 1897. More than a hundred years after its ephemeral contents went up in smoke, this cigar box stores a vivid and little known piece of Canadian history.

There are countless others that do the same. From the 1880s through the 1920s, cigars were the most popular form of tobacco consumed in the western world. Long distance distribution was slow and expensive, so like most goods, cigars were locally manufactured for local use. Canada had more than 1500 cigar factories from Fredericton to Lethbridge, Halifax to Victoria. Each made sometimes dozens of brands. By law, cigars had to be sold out of easy-to-tax boxes in the tobacco shops. The tobacconists displayed the boxes, side by side with their colourful inner lids open, in glass cases where they competed for customer attention like so many miniature billboards.

The manufacturers were under pressure to put eye-catching images on their boxes. They could buy generic labels from the U.S., but many preferred Canadian content and ordered labels from lithographers like Adam Beck and Burland of Montreal, Howell and Duncan in Hamilton, Southam and London Litho in London, and in Toronto, Grant, Harris, and most abundantly, the serial conglomerate Clark Litho; Barclay, Clark, & Co.; Rolph & Clark; and Rolph Clark Stone. Their labels might depict important news and issues of the day, political and show business celebrities, national symbols, puns and funny situations, ethnic stereotypes, beautiful women, sporting men, or scenes from everyday life across Canada. Small print runs were economical and turnaround was fast, so labels could be of relevance to Mr. Everysmoker.

Legally, the boxes were supposed to be destroyed when their contents had been sold. But they were just too useful in a pre-throwaway society. A good many wound up being kept to store things in. A hundred years later, surviving cigar boxes give us a picture of Canada when it was young. They show us something of what Canadians were thinking, what local and world events touched their lives, who was important to them, what their sense of humour might have been, and what it meant for them to be Canadians.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau,
Quebec, has perhaps the largest collection of old Canadian
cigar boxes in the world. Each tells a different story. Here
are four of them: one is about a big incident in a small
place; another about early Canadian symbols; one depicts
an industry that helped forge the nation; and one shows
that making fun of politicians is an old Canadian sport.

Jack Canuck
Within a few years of Confederation, Canadians were
developing an iconography of symbols to represent the
new Dominion to each other and abroad. Some of these
images—like the beaver and the maple leaf—were already
widely used and recognized. Others may have been
helped into the national consciousness through the medium
of cigar box labels.

One such label was designed by Rolph & Clark in
the late 1890s for cigar manufacturer F. Keil of Waterloo,
Ontario. It highlights two national symbols that had just
been introduced to Canadians: the Red Ensign flag, featuring
the composite arms of Canada’s provinces; and a
figure promoted in political newspaper cartoons as an
icon for the nation, Jack Canuck. Both appear on this 1922
version of the label, along with a giant log and maple
leaves, flanked by iconographic Canadian scenes: beavers
building a dam and farmers reaping wheat. Cigar labels
don’t come more symbol-packed than this.

A personal story from the curator: “I began systematically
collecting old Canadian cigar boxes for the Museum
when I acquired, in connection with general research
on Canadian tobacco history, a century-old box
called Jumbo, made by B.F. Honsinger of St. Thomas, Ontario.
On its label was a picture of Jumbo the Elephant,
star attraction of P.T. Barnum’s circus in the 1880s. It
made me curious: why Jumbo the Elephant on a cigar
box from a small town in southwestern Ontario?

A little digging revealed that Jumbo had been killed
in St. Thomas on September 15, 1885 while touring with
the circus. He had been taken by his trainer for an evening
walk with a baby elephant, Tom Thumb, by the
railroad tracks. Tom Thumb strayed onto the tracks just
as an unscheduled train approached. Jumbo protectively
placed himself between the train and Tom Thumb, and
was killed. It made news worldwide. Local cigar maker
B.F. Honsinger knew a marketing opportunity when he
saw one. He put Jumbo’s name and picture on a product
line. In the label artwork, he included a newspaper likeness
of Jumbo’s trainer, and an image of classical columns
in ruins—part of the Victorian iconography of death.

As a curator I realized that, just as this cigar box had
once been part of the news, today it was full of information
for Canadians who might never have heard of Jumbo
the Elephant or St. Thomas, Ontario, or known there was
a tragic connection between place and pachyderm. I began
looking for more such boxes.”

Railways were very much on the minds of Canadians
during the decades following Confederation. Prodigious
feats of labour and engineering built iron roads from sea
to sea, as political leaders rose and fell with their railway
policies, western settlement by non-indigenous peoples
expanded, and economic scandals multiplied. The railway
craze reached fever pitch at the turn of the 20th century.

By 1914, no fewer than three systems girded the country.
The Intercolonial cigar box label began as a generic
lithograph, probably American, showing an old locomotive
complete with “Smoker” car. The Canadian cigar
manufacturer overprinted it with a title to depict the
very first Canadian railway. The Intercolonial was begun
in the 1850s to link the Maritimes to the Province of
Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec). Its completion
was made a condition of Confederation. Sanford Fleming
was in charge of surveying and engineering. By 1876, the
Intercolonial ran 1,100 kilometres from Halifax to the St.
Lawrence and eventually connected to the rest of the
country via the Grand Trunk Railway. The Intercolonial
was vital to the development of Atlantic Canada, and
Canada itself would not have existed without its being
built. Never a commercial success, it was made part of the
Canadian National Railway in 1919.

Noisy Boys
If a politician’s picture in the newspaper caught the
customer’s eye, it might catch his eye in the cigar display
case—according to Canadian cigar manufacturers.
Thus there are several brands invoking contemporary
politicians—Laurier had two bearing his name and
very distinguished portrait; the fathers of Confederation
appear on the label of Confederation; and Prime Minister
J. S. D. Thompson’s entire cabinet is shown on a
box called The Cabinet.

But these were more or less serious depictions. Noisy
Boys is virtually a Canadian political cartoon on a cigar
box. It is based on the “Noisy Boys” or “Recess” label by
New York lithographer Heffron & Phelps (ca. 1880–1890).
Montreal cigar maker J. M. Fortier, who in fact made the
original, seems to have had the label customized for a
second line featuring cartoon likenesses of politicians of
the day, both Conservative and Liberal. From left to right
(omitting the “teacher”), they appear to be: Louis-François-
Georges Baby, Sir Edgar Dewdney, John Henry Pope,
Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, Edward Blake, Sir Mackenzie
Bowell, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin
and Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

These boxes and many more are part of an online
exhibit, Canada in a Box: Cigar Containers that Store Our Past
1883-1935 at the CMC website. On display are hundreds of
beautiful cigar box labels that worked to sell cigars; they
do a pretty good selling job on Canadian history too.

Sheldon Posen is Curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian
Museum of Civilization.