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 Old Is My Cigar Box?

There are a number of factors to take into account in estimating when an old cigar box was first filled with cigars.

  1. Revenue Stamp. The revenue stamp is the first place to look. In Canada, stamps were issued in 1883, 1897, 1915, 1922, 1924, and 1935 ("Series C"). Manufacturers bought them in advance, affixing them to boxes as they were filled, and inking or otherwise canceling the stamps before sending them out to stores. Cigar boxes bearing dated stamps may have been manufactured anytime between the date on their stamp and the date of the next series—or even beyond, if the manufacturer had a good supply of stamps! (Revenue stamp collectors and scholars can be more precise: they keep track of the Control Numbers printed on the stamps as they were issued. See Resources.)
  2. Every old cigar box had to have the FACTORY and IRD NUMBER or PORT NUMBER/LETTER of the manufacturer somewhere on the box. Up to about 1935, these were branded or inked on the bottom of the box. On the earliest boxes, usually with 1883 tax stamps, they might be printed on a paper label stuck on the bottom, side, or end of the box. The Caution Notice on these paper stickers often made no reference to Canada (later, branded notices always did). Similarly, many boxes with a Series C revenue stamp carry this information elsewhere on the box, or on the stamp. See Anatomy - Bottom Brand
  3. IRD numbers appeared in the Caution Notice on boxes made before 1922; Port number/letter combinations thereafter.
  4. Manufacturer. The manufacturer's name can provide a range of years in which the box appeared. See Licence Codes for Canadian Manufacturers (PDF–85KB) under License Codes. Press CTL-F, type the name of the manufacturer and press ENTER. Where your cursor lands will indicate what year(s) the manufacturer was in business.
  5. Label copyright. Some label lithographers copyrighted their work and printed the date on their labels. Since labels were sold for years, the printed date yields an "earliest year" the box was made, not a precise date of issue.
  6. Label subject. Cigar box labels were nothing if not current. A label commemorating an event such as a battle or an athletic competition, or showing a contemporary celebrity—a theatre star, soldier, politician, even a literary character, can help date a box.
  7. Label Style and Printing Technology. Graphic style changed over the years from 1870 to 1930, due to printing technology, economics, and to natural changes in the way artists see and represent the world. Ironically, as printing technology grew more sophisticated and capable, graphics simplified. Cigar labels dating from what many call the "Golden Era" of cigar label art (1880-1910) included elaborate embossing, "gold" appliqué, fine shading, bright, vivid colours, and great detail in both foreground and background. Earlier artwork was simpler, less nuanced, not as vivid; later artwork (photo offset) showed more solid colours, but was untextured and left more white space. See Resources for where to find information and examples.
  8. Lithographer. If labels are signed by their lithographers, it is possible to learn when they were at work. For instance, two independent Toronto lithography companies responsible for much tobacco artwork—not just cigars but tobacco and cigarette packaging as well—merged with each other in 1904, then with another company in 1917:
    • Rolph, Smith & Company 1863
    • Clark Lithography Company - pre 1904
    • Barclay, Clark & Co. - ???
    • Rolph and Clark 1904
    • Rolph, Clark, Stone 1917

    Spot the name, and you have a clue to the date of the artwork—and the box.

  9. Union Label. The "Coolie" label was applied to boxes between 1880 and 1894; the "Moral" label from 1894 to the 1940s. (See Anatomy of a Cigar Box for more about union labels.)
  10. Materials. The great majority of boxes prior to 1925 were made of solid wood, most of it exposed. After 1920, as a cost saving measure, boxes were made of cheaper grades of wood and covered completely with paper; or made of cardboard—sometimes printed to imitate or recall the look of wood. After World War II, cigar boxes were made primarily of cardboard.