74 chromolithographs in original bound volume, 6.5 x 10 inches
With the extraordinary popularity of cigars in late-nineteenth century America, and the consequent birth of the cigar-box-label salesman, came colorful catalogs and sample books, of which ours is an intact example, “showcasing” the variety of label designs available to cigar manufacturers and merchants. By the early 1880s most label production had shifted from small towns to large specialty printing firms on the east coast, among these the Manhattan-based O. L. Schwencke, begun in 1884 and absorbed by Moehle Lithographic Co. in 1900. Done in luxurious chromolithography, the embossed labels in our Schwencke sample book contrast scenes of leisure, privilege, and high sophistication, such as operagoing and pleasure-boating, with a dizzying array of images to appeal to all manner of disposition and fantasy: sentimental courtships and family tableaux, patriotic allegories, scenes of foreign travel, sportsmanship, war, adventure, and industry, elaborate and indecipherable insignia, exotic animals and cherubs, caricatures of Arabs and Native Americans, mildly sexualized women, and American playboys and tycoons. These scenes usually appear under very broad legends such as “Leader,” “Beauty,” and “Peerless,” with more specific-sounding legends such as “Santiago,” “La Rosa Especial,” and “La Amenidad” posing as exotic brand names but in fact easily mapped over whatever generic cigar the merchant or manufacturer might have had on hand or been eager to push on customers. One label, “Life Saver,” shows a woman in red whisked from a sinking ship, cigar boxes safe under her and her rescuer’s arms, while another, “Our Latest,” has a rather moderne and androgynous bike rider enjoying a smoke.
Arrangement and access:
The 74 extant labels are bound in their original hardback sample book, the embossed legend on the cover reading: “O. L. Schwencke, New York and Chicago.” The sample book is professionally published but without title page or date. A paper label pasted into the inside front cover boasts of a “large and elegant assortment of embossed, up-to-date labels” available to private cigar manufacturers in lots of ten thousand. Several labels were removed from the album, probably given as samples to prospective buyers. Also included in the collection is a single red cigar band.