Collecting Tobacciana

Collecting Tobacciana

In the 2005 Jason Reitman film Thank You for Smoking, Big Tobacco executive "B.R." berates his senior staff for lagging sales by saying: "People, we don't sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they're cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us."

Indeed. For more than 300 years, tobacco products were "cool, available, and addictive". The rites and customs surrounding the use of tobacco over that period of time spawned thousands of peripheral products. Collectors of these products - known as "tobacciana" - are passionate about their hobby.

By the 19th Century, tobacco use was near-universal in North America. Historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer claimed that in 1865 70% of Americans over the age of 12 used tobacco products.

Tobacco was smoked in pipes and cigars, chopped up and chewed, ground with a mortar and pestle and inhaled or placed in one's cheek, or used medicinally in poultices and tea. For a time during North America's colonization it was even used as money. Tobacco was such a huge part of the American economy that in the late 19th Century tobacco excise tax revenues accounted for almost one-third of the US government's income.

Because tobacco usage was widespread, there are hundreds of thousands of tobacciana collectibles available today. As of this writing, an eBay search for "antique tobacciana" brings back over 7,000 listings and "tobacciana" over 400,000 listings. eBay represents just a small fraction of the collectibles offered; tobacciana collectibles are sold at live auctions and antique stores as well as online. In addition to actual smoking paraphernalia, tobacciana collectibles include advertising, art, and promotional items. The market for these collectibles is very active, and there is such a varied selection of items available that even new collectors can develop a nice assemblage of interesting items.

Though "most everyone" was using tobacco in the 18th,19th and 20th Centuries, there were clear class distinctions surrounding the paraphernalia used to support the habit. In rural North America, corncob, clay and hand-whittled wooden pipes were used for smoking because cigars were rare and expensive. Out in "the country", snuff and "chaw" required no spittoons: the brown saliva was discharged onto the ground or into a can. Tobacco was grown alongside one's vegetable garden. When mature, leaves were cut and hung in a warm, dry, airy barn or shed to cure. When the tobacco was ready, the leaf spines were cut away and the leaves were cut by hand or processed using a hand-cranked tobacco cutter.

Victorian and urban upper classes adopted quite different habits regarding tobacco use than their rural neighbors. For urban men, cigars were the norm. Pipes were custom-made from fine woods and one's pipe collection was kept in a carved pipe stand. Tobacco was purchased from a Tobacconist (retailer specializing in tobacco products). To keep pipe and cigar tobacco from drying out each type was kept in its own humidor. To add to the panache of the smoking experience, well-heeled male smokers would stock their den or library with carved, cast, or mechanical:

Cigarettes were available in the 18th and 19th Centuries but were not as widely used as pipes and cigars. The practice of rolling tobacco in fine paper first appeared in France in the 17th Century. Cigarettes required a constant supply of rolling paper and minced tobacco which were sometimes hard to find. Companies that produced pre-rolled cigarettes rarely had enough supplies to keep up with the demand, so many smokers opted to avoid cigarettes altogether.

America's attitude toward cigarettes changed beginning in 1881. In that year James Bonsack invented a machine that could mass-produce cigarettes, raising production from 40,000 per day to around 4 million per day. Bonsack's machine would mince tobacco, drop it into a paper tube, and cut the tubes to produce individual cigarettes.

Cigarette smoking swept America in the 20th Century; most adults who smoked preferred cigarettes. Hundreds of brands were introduced, each offering branded packaging and advertising. Cigarette packaging has become collectible, as has all the advertising that promoted the brands. Advertising premiums such as branded cigarette lighters, baseball caps, jackets, and more have moved into the realm of tobacciana collectibles. Smoking was so pervasive that many non-tobacco companies offered ashtrays, lighters, and other smoking accoutrements that featured their company brand.

Although many tobacciana collectibles can be purchased for under $100, some recent notable high-dollar sales include:

In 1964, the US Surgeon General published a scathing report on the negative effects of cigarette smoking, and the tobacco business has been in a steady downhill slide since then. Some types of advertising have been banned altogether. Sales of tobacco products are strictly regulated. States have sued Big Tobacco to recoup health care costs and have won big settlements.

The result of this downward slide for collectors? They have a whole new category of tobacianna to pursue: anti-smoking comic books, posters, playing cards, pins, ashtrays, and other tobacco advertising materials. And, since product advertising has been curtailed dramatically, original cigarette ads and marketing materials have gone up in price.

Smoking tobacco doesn’t seem to have a very bright future. In February 2014, health officials interviewed by The Daily Mail (UK) newspaper saw the slowly-declining adult smoking rate dropping to 10 percent in the next decade and to 5 percent or lower by 2050.

It seems that cigarettes (to disagree with my opening movie quote) will no longer be "cool, available, and addictive". Unless, of course, you’re collecting tobacciana. Collectors will tell you that collecting tobacciana is about as cool and addictive as it gets.

Photo Attributions:

  1. Flapper cigarette dispenser
  2. Death Cigarettes playing cards
  3. Snuff box

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