In the early part of the 19th century, cigars were usually shipped in cases of a thousand, wrapped in anything from pigs’ bladders to palm leaves. America was expanding rapidly and cigar smoking was booming right along with it. It has been estimated that people, mostly men, were smoking about 300 million cigars a year by the middle of the century. During the Civil War, when President Lincoln went in search of tax revenue to fund the war effort, cigars offered an opportune windfall. In 1863, the federal government issued regulations standardising the types of boxes that could be used. With one stroke, the IRS was given an easy way to track their sales.
By 1865, it was illegal to ship cigars that weren’t boxed. At the time, colour lithography was just coming into its own, taking advertising to a new level. The nexus of the cigar’s popularity and design innovations quickly found its way across the U.S. Before long, thousands of mom and pop manufacturers, similar to today’s microbreweries, were competing for the customer’s attention with ornate cigar box labels and logos. We might go so far as to credit the cigar box with the development of point-of-sale advertising. When the brightly coloured boxes started appearing in droves, people began to re-use them in ways limited only by the imagination. They became button containers, memento holders, lunch boxes, clocks, lamps—and musical instruments.
So we have to thank the Tax Man for giving us the raw material for our beautiful instruments. Good things can come from the most unfortunate sources!