Thursday, July 30, 2015

Uncle Sam and Cigars: Puffing on Patriotism

Sex sells, but so does patriotism.  Before the U.S. Surgeon General warned us all about the dangers of smoking, cigar manufacturers had recognized that symbols of patriotism could be a powerful influence on the stogie aficionados of America.  Uncle Sam, who regularly was showing up on liquor and beer advertising, was a natural icon for displaying on the cigar box lids and advertising.

The lid of a National cigar box above is particularly intriguing.  The bearded figure shown in the top hat, blue jacket and red striped trousers is a bit young for Uncle Sam and may be his predecessor, a character called “Brother Jonathan” that once epitomized the U.S.  Sitting jauntily on a hogshead of tobacco he is surrounded by two female symbols of “liberty.”  Just the name of the brand —National — bespeaks a patriotic appeal.  The cigars were the product of the Chas. Fellman Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts.
The Spanish American War was a time of considerable patriotic fervor in the country.  It also marked an era of expansionism.  The Boener Bros. of Lawrence, Kansas, offered Americans a new cigar, possibly a more bulbous version.  By calling it “My New Shape” and featuring an obese Uncle Sam it brought attention to the quick defeat of the Spanish and the potential for adding Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines to an American empire.   In the end, of course, only Puerto Rico and the Philippines (for a time) were kept.
The Spanish-American War also set the patriotic theme of “Victorias” Cigar — possibly a takeoff of “Victorious.” This was a product of the G. B. Sprague Cigar Company of Columbus, Ohio, probably manufactured around 1899.  It featured Sam with portraits of two Navy admirals designated, “Our Leaders.”  The portrait at left is Admiral George Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay for sinking the Spanish fleet at its anchorage there.  At right is William Thomson Sampson known for his victory in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.
“Our Uncle” Cigars strike a patriotic pose, this time showing Uncle Sam among two symbols of Washington, D.C., the U.S. Capitol building and the Washington Monument.  More interesting is the backdrop inside the bower behind the old gentleman.  It displays palm trees, mountains and what appears to be a factory in a Latin American Country.  This may be Cuba with the inference of where Our Uncle gets his tobacco.
The next cigar box lid leaves nothing to the imagination.  It shows Uncle Sam enjoying a “Yankee Smoke” cigar posed in front of a map of Cuba.  Again the name of the stogie and Uncle Sam smoking it in triumph, rampant on a map of a country recently wrested from Spanish control, bespeaks the strong tide of expansionism that swept the country during and after the Spanish-American conflict.

The most elegant portrait of the old gentleman came from a cigar manufacturer in Richmond, Virginia.  He was a German immigrant named Peter Whitlock who served with the Confederate Army in the Quartermaster Corps making uniforms.  After the war he began with a small cigar rolling shop and with success by 1885 was employing 70 rollers and 30 support people.   In 1886 Whitlock completed construction of the giant “P. Whitlock Cheroot and Cigar Factory” and introduced the smokes that Uncle Sam recommended.   They were called “Old Virginia Cheroots, sold three for five cents, and reportedly were a national favorite for more than a half century.  The picture of Uncle Sam was one of five large posters offered as premiums by the company.

Perhaps the ultimate in the kidnapping of the Uncle Sam image by the cigar trade was a line of the product that called itself “Uncle Sam Cigars.”   It was fully in the patriotism mode, with the American bald eagle and national shield flanking the stogie smoking Sam.  I read an imperial expansion theme in it as the figure drops his cigars over a cloud-shrouded globe.  A second lid, shown below, advertising the same brand sounds the same theme.  Uncle Sam is looking toward a navy ship, speeding fast and two guns aimed forward.  Perhaps this Sam “needs no introduction” because military power is opening foreign markets for U.S. manufactures like cigars.  

The figure in front of a flowing American flag is advertising “Uncle Sam’s Cigar,” likely a competitor to the cigar above.  This stogie was sold with the slogan “The Nation’s Choice.”  The motto must have had a signal amount of cachet; it was used, with variations on the wording, by a number of cigar manufacturers.  Against the backdrop of two patriotic props, the use of the word “nation” was not accidental.  As other illustrations here, it signaled an energetic patriotism as a marketing ploy.   

With the introduction of Uncle Sam as the most pervasive symbol of America, appearing frequently in newspapers and magazines both at home and abroad, perhaps it was inevitable that the image would be purloined for commercial purposes.   Although large parts of the American population considered smoking and drinking alcohol immoral, the general public apparently did not sense that such commercial uses would inappropriate or that some products tarnished the image of Uncle Sam.
“Uncle Sam’s Delight” featured the American icon in a highly unusual pose, lying on his back under a tree with an American eagle perched on one knee.  He is smoking a cigar longer than his midriff, a large ash on the end.  This image was meant to convey that Uncle Sam’s Delight cigars were unusually long — some seven inches.  They came in an oversized box of 50 made by the Old Well Cigar Company of Norwalk, Connecticut.  This manufacturer had been founded in 1880 by Christian Swartz, a German immigrant, Union solder, tobacco shop owner, and later Mayor of Norwalk.
Another cigar co-opting the name was “Uncle Sam’s Hot Shots” that showed the stogie rather than Sam but added in the usual patriotic symbols of the American flag and shield.  When issued about 1903 it was the product of the American Stogie Company of Allegheny, Pennsylvania.  A popular brand, it seems later to have been taken over by the P. Lorillard Company of New York.

The era of identifying Uncle Sam with cigars seemingly arose after the Civil War and, judging from the examples here, hit full stride during and after the Spanish-American war.  As the 20th Century wore on, however, the use of the figure to sell tobacco products diminish sharply and by the onset of World War One seems largely to have disappeared.  Today, of course, using Uncle Sam to promote tobacco products would be almost unthinkable.  

No comments:

Post a Comment