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Tobacco Advertising

By Jeremy Blum




Tobacco played a very important part in early American history.  Tobacco was smoked or chewed by the Native Americans long before European settlement.  Tobacco use was controversial from the beginning.  In 1604 King James I of England wrote "Smoking is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."  A brief early timeline is below.  For more detail go to


  • Tobacco production is almost as old as settlement in what is now the U.S.  John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas, raised the first crop of tobacco in Jamestown in 1612.  


  • Tobacco also lead to the importation of slaves.  Interestingly, the first Africans brought over to Jamestown in 1619 were indentured servants not slaves, since they were already Christians.


  • Also, that year was the first importation of women for wives.  The men had to pay for their women with 120 pounds of tobacco.  


  • By the mid-1600s, large amounts of tobacco were being exported to Europe and plantations proliferated in the Colonies.   


  • The first American tobacco factories started in Virginia in 1730.  


  • Tobacco grower debts to British mercantile houses and tobacco taxes were some of the grievances that lead to the American Revolutionary War.  


  • Tobacco was used to partially finance the war for the Americans.  Benjamin Franklin obtained a loan from France secured by 5 million pounds of tobacco.  George Washington in appealing for aid said “If you can’t send money, send tobacco”.


  • Cigars became popular in the 1820s


  • The first friction match was invented in England in 1827 by Chemist John Walker.  They were known as Lucifers before the name was changed to matches.


  • In the 1830s the first organized anti-tobacco movement in the U.S. was started as an adjunct to the temperance movement.


  • The first paper rolled cigarettes were invented in Turkey in 1832.


  • The 1860 Census for Virginia and North Carolina lists 348 tobacco factories, virtually all producing chewing tobacco. Manufactured cigarettes first appear. A popular early brand is Blackwell Tobacco Company's Bull Durham.  The baseball term bullpen is derived from that product.


  • In 1875, R. J. Reynolds founds R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to produce chewing tobacco, soon producing brands like Brown's Mule, Golden Rain, Dixie's Delight, Yellow Rose, Purity.


  • In 1875 Allen & Ginter cigarette brands of Richmond, VA ("Richmond Straight Cut No. 1," "Pet") begins using picture cards to stiffen the pack and give the buyer a premium. The cards are a huge hit and some of the earliest tobacco advertising collectible today.


  • In 1878 J.E. Liggett & Brother incorporates as Liggett & Myers Company. By 1885 Liggett is world's largest plug tobacco manufacturer but doesn't make cigarettes until the 1890's.



  • In 1884, Duke heads to New York City to take his tobacco business national and form a cartel that eventually becomes the American Tobacco Co.  Duke buys 2 Bonsack machines., getting one of them to produce 120,000 cigarettes in 10 hours by the end of the year. In this year, Duke produces 744 million cigarettes, more than the national total in 1883. Duke's airtight contracts with Bonsack allow him to undersell all competitors.


  • In 1904 Connorton's Tobacco Directory lists 2,124 "cigarettes, cigarros and cheroots."




Tobacco has been heavily advertised since the 1870s when advances in lithography lead to the use of tobacco cards, trade cards, posters and signs.  Products advertised were snuff, pipe tobacco, cigarettes and cigars. The heyday of the cigar was from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s when it was supplanted by cigarettes.  


The Surgeon General first warned smoking leads to cancer and Bronchitis in 1964.  A warning label was required on all cigarette packs in 1966.  Advertising on TV, radio was banned in 1971.  After that most advertising was in newspapers, magazines and billboards.  Billboards and cartoon characters were banned in 46 states in 1997.  


All the posters, trade cards, ashtrays, matchbooks, and cigar box labels and also the other items with a light wood background shown below are from my collection.


Picture cards


Picture cards were included in cigarette packaging originally to stiffen them.  They started in 1875 and continued into the 1940s.  Popular subjects were actors and actresses, sports figures, Indians, animals, military, flags, plants, royalty, and much more.   Most are smaller than a trade card and some were made of silk.  Most picture cards are very affordable, selling for under $5.  However, certain cards, especially those of baseball players have sold for thousands. A 1909 Honus Wagner card has sold for $2,800,000.  The tobacco baseball cards are the precursor to the baseball cards sold today.

1903 BAT Water Girls Card, front and back                                             Indian Chief

Cubs famous infield Tinker to Evers to Chance c. 1910

Tins and containers


Most rigid loose tobacco containers were made of steel and tin but some were also made of cardboard, brass, copper or aluminum. The original tins used to hold food or tobacco were invented in 1810 in England.  Tins with stenciling or paper labels were some of the first advertising and was used in the 1840s through 1860s.  In 1865, tax stamps were first used on tobacco tins.  One color lithography started in the 1870s.  Multi colored lithographed tins started in 1882 and became the primary method of producing graphics by 1891.  The words patented or U.S. patent were first used in 1900.  Tins are probably the largest tobacco related collecting category.  There are several reference books and price guides that have been published.  Most graphics were printed right on the can, though some do have paper labels.  Tobacco tins come in all shapes and sizes.  Smaller ones often held snuff or were made to fit in a pocket.  Flat ones often were made to hold cigarettes.  Large ones were often used by stores. While most post World War II tobacco tins can be found under $25, many earlier ones can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Pocket tin c. 1910s                                      Pocket tin 1920s                                           Cardboard container 1890s

Cardboard container c. 1910                                       Store Counter Top Tin



Signs are a very large category of collecting for tobacco products, just as it is for alcohol, farm, oil and gas and soda products.  I am including in this category clocks, thermometers and other advertising other than posters that hung on a wall.  Earlier signs were made of materials such as tin, porcelain and sometimes wood.  Signs after World War II were often tin or cardboard. Many postwar signs can be found for under $100, though some go for several hundred dollars.  Earlier signs if in good condition go for hundreds or sometimes even thousands of dollars.

Rolling Papers


In the 1960s and 1970s rolling papers became more associated with marijuana than tobacco.  However, rolling papers were invented in 1832 in Turkey and heavily used for tobacco in the 1800s and early 1900s.  The artist Alphonse Mucha produced a series of Job rolling papers posters in the 1890s that often sell for over $10,000 today.  Papers usually came in small packs, no taller than the size of a cigarette.  Since they take up little space and are affordable they can make an excellent display.

Trade Cards


Trade cards were one of the most prevalent form of advertising in the U.S. from around 1875 to 1900.   They had their origin in England in the 1700s with tradesmen advertising their wares. The advent of lithography in the 1870s made it possible to mass-produce them in color.  The cards were purchased by businesses from printers and then usually given to customers.  Many Victorians collected them, often putting together large scrapbooks. Though worth little until a few decades ago, they are now heavily collected again.  The sheer number printed, the small size, the strong colors, and the interesting content have insured that many survived.  The color is a big draw as the chromolithography process provided a purer and sharper color than today’s color printing.  The printing process was time consuming.  Each color used in the image was separately drawn onto a stone or plate and applied to the paper one at a time.   Those with more colors were more expensive to produce, but are generally more desirable today.


Trade cards give a great insight to the popular culture of the late Victorian age in America. In an age when almost every image was black and white, trade cards were a colorful depiction of everyday life, made better by the product being sold. Many show stereotypes that are politically incorrect today.  Stereotypical images were shown of Blacks, Chinese, Jews, Irish and others.  Women were primarily shown in the home.  Like advertising today, many trade cards used either humor or pretty women to sell their product.  Unlike today, there was a high level of children and flowers.  Trade cards disappeared around the turn of the twentieth century due to the increased use of newspapers, magazines and postcards.

Cigarette Packs


Widespread smoking of cigarettes didn’t start until well into the twentieth century.  Per capita cigarette smoking increased from 54 in 1900 to a peak of 4,259 in 1965.  It then declined to 1,691 in 2006.  Cigarette packs are usually small containers that contain 10-25 cigarettes with 20 being the most common number in the U.S.   Size may vary in other countries.  They come hard or soft.  Hard ones are usually made of cardboard the soft ones of paper.  Soft packs were more convenient, hard packs protect the contents better.  Some older ones are tin. Cigarette packs were often sold through vending machines.  Today many are sold in cartons.  Cigarette brands often issue promotional packs today as a way to get around advertising restrictions and some are collectible.  The listing below of cigarette market share in 1911 gives an indication of what common vintage cigarettes are out there.

  • Liggett & Myers was given about 28 per cent of the cigarette market:

    • Piedmont

    • Fatima

    • American Beauty

    • Home Run

    • Imperiales

    • Coupon

    • King Bee

    • Fatima (the only 15 Turkish blend

    • and the cheap straight domestic brands

  • P. Lorillard received 15 per cent of the nation's business:

    • Helmar

    • Egyptian Deities

    • Turkish Trophies

    • Murad

    • Mogul

    • and all straight Turkish brands

  • American Tobacco retained 37 per cent of the market:

    • Pall Mall, its expensive all-Turkish brand, named for a fashionable London street in the 18th century where "pall-mall" (a precursor to croquet) was played.

    • Sweet Caporal

    • Hassan

    • Mecca

Marboro was originally a woman’s brand.

Cross collectible



I have created a separate category for posters from signs as the graphics are often much more colorful, complex and appealing.  Posters are one of the earliest forms of advertising.  Posters, showing pictures instead of just words were made possible by the advent of stone lithography in 1796 in Germany.  However, the process was time consuming.  Some advertising posters were using color by the 1840s.  Improvements in this process in the 1870s made it possible to more inexpensively mass-produce posters in color.  For posters from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the color is a big draw as the chromolithography process provided a purer and sharper color than today’s color printing.  The printing process was still time consuming.  Each color used in the image was separately drawn onto a stone or plate and applied to the paper one at a time.   Those with more colors were more expensive to produce, but are generally more desirable today.  Stone lithography came to an end around World War II.  


Posters are often artist signed, dated and list the printer.  Most posters if not dated on the paper can by dated by the design.  Designs included art Nouveau in the 1890s and 1900s, art deco 1920s and 1930s, midcentury in the 1950s and early 1960s and many lesser known forms such as Cubism, Dada, Expressionism and Futurism.  Also hair styles, vehicle and other product styles, and building styles can be used to ballpark date a poster.


The advent of radio, billboards and later TV and the internet significantly reduced their use in the second half of the 20th century.  Collecting posters requires a willingness to use wall space.  Large collections are difficult for this reason.  Most vintage poster owners use them for décor, or because they go with other things they collect. Posters are one of the best antiques or collectibles for décor as they were made to catch the eye and are often pretty, striking or capture a mood.  

Poster for first brand with picture cards, 1880s         Alphonse Mucha Job papers poster 1890s

1940s Chesterfield     




Lighters due to their small size can be collected in quantity and usually for a small price.   Ronson produced the first modern lighter in 1913.  The Zippo lighter was invented in 1932.  Zippo was noted for its reliability, "Life Time Warranty" and marketing as "Wind-Proof".   In the 1950s, there was a switch in fuel choice from naphtha to butane. Butane allows for a controllable flame and has less odor.  Lighters were used for advertising for many brands besides cigarettes.



Ashtrays are a receptacle for cigarette and cigar ashes and are ubiquitous wherever there is smoking and people don’t want their ashes on the ground.  The term ashtray came into being in 1926.  The golden age of ashtrays started after the end of World War II and ended in 1980s and 1990s when smoking started being banned in public places.  For this reason, they go well with many midcentury collections.   Many ashtrays contained advertising.  Hotel, motel and restaurant ashtrays are very common.  Ashtrays are made of almost every material that doesn’t burn or melt under heat including glass, brass, pot metal, tin, porcelain, pottery and silver. Ashtrays are very affordable and usually cost less than $10.  While some ashtrays are on stands, most that have advertising are table top and usually have notches at the rim to hold cigarettes or cigars.

Porcelain motel ashtray                                                   Tin agricultural service space age ashtray     

Glass restaurant ashtray                                                    Bank Glass Ashtray 1960s





Collectors of matchbooks are known as phillumenists, or "lovers of light". The Rathkamp Matchcover Society has over 600 members and issues a bulletin six times a year.  Matchbooks were invented in 1892, but were a technological failure. Since the striking surface was inside the book, all the matches often caught fire. By 1912, the technology was perfected.  The heyday was the 1940s and 1950s after which lighters became a lot more inexpensive and the amount of smokers declined.  Matchbooks are still being produced today.  Collectors usually remove the matches by carefully removing the staple holding them on as a safety precaution.  In some cases where advertising is printed right on the matches they are kept.

Cigar Boxes and Cigar Box Labels


In 1830, the banking firm of  H.Upmann started shipping cigars, for the use of its directors in London, in sealed cedar boxes stamped with the bank's emblem. The bank then decided to go into the cigar business.  The cedar box took off as a form of packaging for all the major Havana brands, and most handmade cigars. Cedar helps to prevent cigars from drying out and furthers the maturing process.  Lithographed labels started in 1837 by Ramon Allones of Cuba.  Today, the cigar boxes and unused labels are both collectible.  Labels are a lot easier to find and take up much less space.  They are also generally in much better condition as most available today were not used. Inner labels are rectangular and larger than the outer labels and are usually 8-10” wide.  The outers are usually 4.5” squares.  Many labels are common and can be found for under $10.  Some however sell in the hundreds of dollars.  

Outer cigar box labels c. 1900
























Inner label, 1890s.

Cigar box.


Other Tobacco Collectibles


Table top cigar cutters from prior to World War II are collected today by country store and advertising collectors as they often contain the makers name or that of a tobacco brand.  Most were made of cast iron or another metal.


Cigar Store Indians were made in the 1800s and early 1900s.  These are handcarved wooden life-sized characters, and not always Indians.  Those in good condition can sell for over $50,000 today.


Cigar bands were loops of paper put around a cigar to identify the brand.


Tobacco crate labels were like fruit crate labels, placed on wooden boxes to identify the brand.


Spittoons were used in the 1800s and early 1800s as a receptacle to spit out tobacco.  Some have advertising.


Match holders were usually small metal objects placed on a wall and held loose matches.


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