James Rada, Jr.
Northern Frederick County is not known for growing tobacco, but it has had a cigar box manufacturer and a few cigar manufacturers who used cigar boxes to pack their products.
On May 1, 1905, the federal government made it illegal to give away, sell, or display empty cigar boxes. The reason for this ruling from the Internal Revenue Department was “It is alleged they frequently make cheap cigars and place them in empty boxes that contained high-priced cigars. Through unscrupulous dealers, it is an easy matter to get the cigars on the market,” according to the Hagerstown Morning Herald.
The reason that cigars were sold in boxes in the first place was because of the federal government. The Revenue Act of 1864 required all cigars to be packed in boxes in bundles of 25, 50, 100, or 250 cigars.
“Although the majority of cigar boxes were made of wood, examples can be found in numerous other materials, such as glass, plastic, aluminum, brass, tin, and china. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, from intricately carved and decorated wooden chests to cardboard boxes with bold, attention-grabbing advertising text,” according to Collector’s Weekly.
The most-common box was six pieces of wood nailed together to hold 50 cigars. As simple as this sounds, the Catoctin Clarion reported, “The construction of a cigar box passes through nineteen different processes before it is ready to receive the cigars.”
The wooden boxes could be decorated and carved to be more attractive. This is why tobacconists liked using the empty ones for displays.
According to the Catoctin Clarion in 1883, 35,000 to 40,000 cigar boxes were sold every year in the area and that number was only expected to increase.
The main reason for Internal Revenue Department’s decision about empty cigar boxes was the federal government wanted to make sure it got its cut of any cigar sales.
“A decision has been rendered in the matter of making use of empty boxes, containing the label, caution notice and brand, for window displays, to the effect that the use of such boxes is illegal, but the decision does not appear to include boxes that have been stamped and filled with cigars and then emptied in the regular retail way,” the Catoctin Clarion reported.
However, when those boxes were emptied, the owner was supposed to destroy them. This typically wasn’t what happened. Tobacconists used the empty boxes in their store windows for display to attract more customers. These empty boxes all had the required revenue stamp and caution notices needed to sell cigars. Nothing stopped the retailer from simply refilling boxes with cigars and not paying the taxes on them.
For a retailer caught breaking this rule, the fine could be anywhere from $50 to $500. If the reuse of boxes was a deliberate attempt at fraud, the fine rose to up to $5,000 or six months in jail.
Retailers who only wanted to use the boxes as displays eventually realized they could get around this problem by scraping off the stamp and notice.
The Englar Cigar Box Company in Rocky Ridge was the best-known cigar box manufacturer in this area. The company’s motto was: “Superior quality, best lumber, neatly finished.” Operating from 1887 to 1920, the company made wooden cigar boxes.
Many of them would have been destroyed under this new law, which is why they are considered collector’s items now if you can find one.