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Discover Mid-America— June 2010

The allure of the cigarette case remains

There was once a nearly universal allure to the glitzy cigarette case. On the movie screen it was Marlene Dietrich or Humphrey Bogart types handling the gleaming silver cigarette case.

History suggests they were just as popular in the “real world” during the first half of the 20th century. They were seen in the fashion circles of New York, sold in corner drug stores and in mail order catalogs, and even carried by British royalty like Princess Margaret.

During World War II there were stories of metal cigarette cases stopping a bullet from piercing the body of a soldier. One of the better-known persons who told of the life saving experience was James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty on Star Trek.

The obvious health hazards of smoking not withstanding, the cigarette case has a distinguished past and an appealing presence.

Naval presentation cigarette case from Russia, ca. 1914 (photo courtesy Skinner Inc.)

Some experts suggest that the cigarette case simply followed the cigar case in that cigarettes became popular but still benefited from a stylish case. Others disagree and note that Peter Carl Fabergé made lavish gold and gem-covered cigarette cases in the late 19th century. Fabergé was of course much better known for his equally lavish Easter eggs for Russian royalty.

A Fabergé cigarette case might also be made of silver as well. It might have reeded ends and a flourish of leaves plus a polished sapphire for good measure. Some such pieces were marked “Moscow.”

Other elegant Russian-made cigarette cases of the 1890s might also be marked Moscow or St. Petersburg. Typically they were rectangular silver treasures with rounded corners and some enameling or further decoration. Fine examples of this era and location might be monogrammed and fitted to high-quality leather cases.

Cigarette cases were appealing to all economic levels of the marketplace in the late 19th century. The distinguished Pairpoint Manufacturing Company offered cigarette cases in 1894 of gold plate or silver plate for $5 each. Engraved cases were $6. Meanwhile, the Montgomery Ward catalog on the following year listed “telescope style” cigarette cases that were all leather and “vest pocket size.” They were priced at 18 cents each.

By the early 1900s elaborate and “artsy” cigarette cases were being made not only in Russia, but France and England as well. Russian cases of that period might feature floral and geometric enameling on both the front and back. Others might include detailed pastoral scenes along with fine stones.

A recent Skinner Inc. auction featured a 1914 Naval presentation cigarette case made in St. Petersburg. It was described as being decorated with gold skull and crossbones over a snake with a white enameled life preserver and a green enameled frog. It was four inches long and just under three inches wide. Inside was an inscription in Russian, which translated to, “Go forward without fear and uncertainty. Go forward and fight the enemy.”

The case was dated July 17, 1914. It was believed to be only one of five made for presentation by the Russian naval commodore.

naval case
Russian silver and gold coins and nude cigarette case valued at $1,800

Cigarette cases were quite the fashion statement in the swanky parts of the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1927, the Sears and Roebuck catalog advertising a “beautiful gift set” that included a matchbox and a cigarette cases. “A gift sure to please the man who smokes,” it noted. “A fine quality cigarette case, heavily nickel plated, and a match box for paper matches, which has a fastener to attach to watch chain.” The boxed set was $2.75.

Another Sears option was a “popular flat type, nickel silver vest pocket case” that held 10 cigarettes. It was 98 cents.

In the 1930s, cigarette cases “passed from the state of mere utilitarianism to that of decorative imperiousness,” observed John Mebane in the book Collecting Nostalgia. “They not only performed their function; they imparted charm and color or at least novelty to the home and to the purse.”

Aiming to fit the dapper man’s inside coat pocket, cigarette case producers turned out new long shapes in the 1930s. Some measured more than six inches in length. They held 20 cigarettes in a single row. Smaller versions were made for ladies to hold ten cigarettes on each side.

During the 1930s an intriguing fictional detective named Bulldog Drummond made entertaining use of a cigarette case. Drummond was the lead crime-fighting character in a number of novels, movies and even radio shows.

Drummond’s cigarette case held Turkish cigarettes on one side and Virginia cigarettes on the other side. Offering them to others he often muttered, “Turks on the left, Virgins on the right.”

Pre-1949 God of Welcome in Repousse cigarette case made in Siam (Thailand) (photo courtesy of Affordable Vintage Jewelry)

Sleek chromium-finished cases with Art Deco designs were popular in that 1930s decade; sometimes they bore color combinations of tortoise and black. Both oblong and square shapes were available to suit the stylish taste. Styles also included fold over tops, which snapped shut and so-called envelope-style covers. And any of the shining examples could be further decorated with rhinestones, imitation jade or other gemstones.

Cigarette cases were an impressive souvenir of the World’s Fairs during the 1930s. Some bore the enameled 1933 fair’s logo in blue background. Others in metal, wood or plastic depicted fair scenes or other related images.

Towards the 1940s cigarette cases with engine-turned or circular arc designs were popular on golden bronze finishes. Although standard cases now usually held ten or 20 cigarettes some non-superstitious manufacturers opted for cases holding 13 cigarettes.

Mebane writes of featherweight cases makers claimed to be made of “aeroplane metal”, and “wafer thin” models, which opened automatically when the top and bottom of the case were pressed at the same time. Still others operated with a spring that automatically lifted up one cigarette when the metal case was opened.

There were less elaborate models in the 1940s too. The Sears and Roebuck catalog of 1944, for example, offered a Lumareth or clear plastic case with a personalized rich gold color decal initial. It held 15 cigarettes, was three by five inches, and cost $1.50. Their oblong cases of alligator leather in burning red or Kelly green, around four by seven inches, was $3.98.

In recent years, the London Daily Telegraph has reported a resurgence of the vintage cigarette case. Apparently many in Europe are using them to hide packages of cigarettes and their accompanying warning labels. Since 2002 a European Union directive demands that health warnings cover 30 to 40 percent of the cigarette package.

One British dealer cautioned however, “in the 1920s and 1930s, men would put cases in the inner jacket pocket, but now they fit less comfortably into jeans.”

Enamel and stone-set Russian silver cigarette case, ca. 1908 (photo courtesy Skinner Inc.)

Anti-smoking effect on value

The relentless — and justified — anti-smoking campaigns of the last 40 years have moved smoking to the great outdoors in many countries. Calling a well-crafted cigarette case a fashion accessory seems hollow when a smoker is standing outside in freezing weather because smoking is banned indoors. Though, admittedly, the case would protect the cigarettes from the dampness.

Whether or how smoking bans affect the value of vintage and antique cigarette cases as collectibles is tough to determine; likewise for the manufacturing of cigarette cases either mass-produced or as a specialty, one-of-a-kind luxury item.

The Internet is full of web sites selling cigarette cases for $25 and under, and even the more expensive lines — many from Europe and silver-plated — run $50 to $60. Some cases with unique pop-culture images, like a Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” logo cigarette case, may someday be considered a collectible and increase in value.

Countries that have a large number of smokers such as China (more than the population of the United States) and without a nationwide smoking ban don’t seem to create noteworthy smoking accessories, cigarette cases or otherwise.

However Russia, without a smoking ban, has produced some of the most elaborate and valuable cigarette cases and likely continues to do so — dependeding upon its own economic situation. Antique Russian enamel and jeweled cigarette cases can command prices in the $2-$6,000 range, particularly those cases made for Tsar royalty.

Late 19th and early 20th century sterling silver cigarette cases in Art Nouveau style and made in England are valued at between $225-$550. Those made in other European countries bring slightly less. Antique gold cigarette cases, such as those made by Fabergé, fluctuate depending upon the price of precious metal. The value of a ca. 1910 Cartier cigarette case made of enamel, platinum, gold and diamonds was appraised at $7,500 on the Antique Roadshow in 2004.

It isn’t likely one will stumble upon one of these cigarette cases in an antique shop. But many shops do carry cigarette cases. They were most popular during the 1920s and ‘30s and up to the 1950s and ‘60s. The Art Deco style silver cases are the most desirable for the average collector.


Robert Reed can be contacted at acns@aol.com. Bruce Rodgers contributed to this article. He can be contacted at publisher@discoverypub.com.


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