Out of the Box: The Art of the Cigar Label

Custom House Museum | Bumpus Gallery

April 28 - October 1, 2023

The early 19th century witnessed the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a time of dramatic economic change when small cottage industries were replaced with large-scale factory production. On the heels of the Industrial Revolution, Cuba’s cigar making industry blossomed.  Small tobacco farms were consolidated into large plantations for more efficient tobacco production, while displaced tobacco farmers found gainful employment as skilled cigar making artisans.

With Cuba’s cigar economy booming, people sought opportunities outside the country looking to make financial gains.  Key West’s neighboring proximity to Cuba and its tobacco plantations, a mere 90 miles away, was the ideal place to establish cigar making factories.  By using Cuban laborers to roll Cuban grown tobacco, entrepreneurs pioneered the idea of making authentic Cuban cigars in America. Within a few years, Cuban immigrants arrived by the thousands to seek employment in Key West’s burgeoning cigar industry.

Aside from the warm, humid climate which was ideal for maintaining a pliable tobacco leaf, a necessity for excellent cigar making, factory owners were able to lure immigrants with affordable housing, a neighborhood environment and gainful employment in the cigar trade.  Enterprising manufacturers either moved their entire production to Key West or opened branch factories.

With a population of more than 18,000 people in 1890, Key West became the largest and wealthiest city in the state of Florida and one of the most influential in the nation.

From the 1880s into the early 20th century, cigar manufacturers desired an avenue to market their particular cigars to consumers.  Mass production of cigars in Cuba and Florida contributed to the successes of lithographic arts.  Layering up to 10 colors in a stone-lithography process, and even adding gold leaf embellishments and embossing, vibrant images sold cigars through romantic landscapes, patriotic figures, Grecian representations of women, and lush tobacco fields.  In Out of the Box: The Art of the Cigar, the display will showcase the rich breadth of artwork created during the golden age of cigar box labels related to Key West, Cuba and Tampa.

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