Canada in a Box, Cigar Containers that Store Our Past 1883-1935
Canada in a Box, Cigar Containers that Store Our Past 1883-1935
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How an Cigar Box Elephant Inspired a Collection

Sheldon Posen, Curator

To fans of Canadian popular culture, and to scholars of social and economic history, early cigar boxes can point to fascinating stories of Canada as it used to be.

I learned this by a lucky chance. During the late 1990s, I found an old cigar box in an antique shop. In the centre of the inner label was a picture of an elephant against a background of savanna, lush jungle greens, and a suggestion of classical ruins. Girdling the elephant's upper trunk and tusks was a bridle, and standing in the curl at the other end was a jaunty looking, mustachioed man, dwarfed by the towering elephant. To one side of the picture was a bright red banner, itself curving upwards like an elephant's trunk, with bold white letters spelling out the word, "Jumbo." Below was the name of the cigar manufacturer, B.F. Honsinger, and his location, St. Thomas, Ontario.

Cigar box,  JUMBO

I could see on the tax stamp on the outside of the box the date 1897. And it made me remember that there actually was a Jumbo the Elephant, a star attraction in P.T. Barnum's circus at the end of the 19th century. He was famous on account of his tremendous size (our word "jumbo," meaning "extra large," comes from him). But I was curious: why Jumbo the Elephant on a cigar box from St. Thomas? Was he merely a decoration? Were the cigars particularly large? Or was there a connection between the giant creature and this small southwestern Ontario town?

It turns out St. Thomas and Jumbo the Elephant do have a history together. I called the St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce and was told there is a life-size statue of Jumbo in a park in St. Thomas, opposite the Elgin County Pioneer Museum. I called the museum and learned that Jumbo had been killed in St. Thomas on September 15, 1885 while touring with the Barnum and Bailey 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. (That the accident took place on the Grand Trunk Railroad line was noted at the time: its sad pun has been getting a laugh in some circles ever since.)

I did some more digging, pulled together some details, and made a few deductions. Jumbo's demise had put St. Thomas on the front page of newspapers around the world. Local cigar maker B.F. Honsinger knew a marketing opportunity when he saw one, and so he put Jumbo's name and picture on a product line. In the label artwork, he included a likeness from the papers of Jumbo's trainer, and an image of classical columns in ruins-part of the Victorian iconography of death.

More than a hundred years ago, the "Jumbo" box helped sell cigars; now, it has a story to tell modern Canadians who might never have heard of Jumbo the Elephant, been to St. Thomas, Ontario, or known there was a tragic connection between place and pachyderm.

Inspired by this box and its story, I have set about collecting old Canadian cigar boxes for the museum. Each in its way is a little research project: "What," I ask myself, "can be learned from this box?"

So far, my cigar box education has been more extensive than I'd have imagined. In this virtual exhibition, I try to pass on some of what I've learned.