Cigars were packed in boxes, crates, and barrels as early as 1800, but the small sized boxes that we are familiar with today did not exist prior to around 1840 (Hyman, Tony (1972). Handbook of Cigar Boxes. New York: Arnot Art Museum.). Until then, cigars were shipped in larger crates containing 100 or more per case. After 1840, cigar manufacturers started using smaller, more portable boxes with 20-50 cigars per box.
Trace evidence of cigar box instruments exist from 1840 to the 1860s. The earliest illustrated proof of a cigar box instrument known is an etching of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle copyrighted in 1876. The etching was created by illustrator and artist Edwin Forbes who, under the banner of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, worked for the Union Army. The etching was included in Forbes work Life Stories of the Great Army. In the etching, the cigar box fiddle clearly shows the brand ‘Figaro’ on the cigar box.
In addition to the etching, plans for a cigar box banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, in 1884 as part of ‘Christmas Eve With Uncle Enos.’ The plans, eventually retitled ‘How to Build an Uncle Enos Banjo’ as part of Beard’s American Boy’s Handy Book in the 1890 release as supplementary material in the rear of the book. (Beard, Daniel Carter (1882). The American Boy’s Handy Book. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0879234490.). These plans omitted the story but still showed a step-by-step description for a playable 5-string fretless banjo made from a cigar box.
It would seem that the earliest cigar box instruments would be extremely cure and primitive: however this is not always the case depending on the makers personal budget. The National Cigar Box Guitar Museum has acquired two cigar box fiddles built in 1886 and 1889 that seem very playable and well built. The 1886 fiddle was made for an 8 year old boy and is certainly playable, but the 1889 fiddle has a well carved neck and slotted violin headstock. The latter instrument was made for serious playing.
The cigar box guitars and fiddles were also important in the rise of jug bands and blues. As most of these performers were black Americans living in poverty, many could not afford a “real” instrument. Using these, along with the washtub bass (similar to the cigar box guitar), jugs, washboards, and harmonica, black musicians performed blues during socializations.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of homemade musical instruments. Times were hard in the American south and for entertainment sitting on the front porch singing away their blues was a popular pastime. Musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple wires from the screen door and a guitar were born.