Fabric has always been an important part of the life of a household. Not only does it make up our clothing, but it is also used to warm our homes when used for window coverings, furnishings, and bedding. When fabric is used as part of the décor of a home, it can bring great pleasure to many of us, surrounding us with our favorite colors and textures.
One of the ways that fabrics have been used for warmth and pleasure is in the making of quilts. Used on beds, quilts can warm the chilliest nights while charming us with their use of fabric and pattern.
Throughout the years quilts have been made with many unusual textiles, and one of the most unusual is the tobacco related textile. While these quilts and other quilt related items are unusual, they can be among the most beautiful of quilts, taking their place with other “fancy” quilts such as the silk show quilts and the elaborate crazy quilts.
With this article I hope to bring a better understanding of how the tobacco related quilt came to be made.
The practice of inserting advertising in tobacco products and packaging began about 1870 and was common throughout the late 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century. The inserts or premiums were varied, some more functional than others, but altogether interesting, and therefore they became collectible items to thousands of men, women and children. Tin tobacco tags, cigarette cards, cigar ribbons, silks, and flannels, are a small portion of the collectibles classified as Tobacciana. These items are not as well known nor collected, as other tobacco related items like cigar boxes or tins, cigarette cases and lighters.
However, though they may not be the most popular of collectibles, tobacco inserts or premiums were popular in their time, and continue to be collectibles. A great deal of their charm comes from the fact that they were free, packed in or on cigarette and tobacco products.
The textile tobacco insert, often cataloged as a tobacco card novelty, is truly a novelty and these items may be of interest to the student of quilt history. Identifying these items as tobacco inserts or premiums is not always easy, and it is often difficult to know exactly how the user obtained the textile.
The tobacco insert is described as the item that was actually inserted into the tobacco packaging, sometimes packed in with the tobacco product and often enclosed in an envelope. At other times they were attached to the outside of the package, as when they were attached to tins of loose tobacco.
The tobacco premium was given away by the tobacco company, in exchange for coupons. The paper coupons were inserted in some tobacco products packaging. The coupons were printed by tobacco companies and were honored as having value when they were exchanged for premiums offered in catalogs that were distributed by the tobacco companies. Coupons were gathered and saved until the consumer had enough to send for an item in the tobacco companies’ catalog. Everything from furniture, clothing, sporting goods and silk textiles could be redeemed with these coupons.
Textiles tobacco inserts, including silks, flannels, rugs or carpets, and cigar ribbons, are unique and fascinating because they were used to make quilts and other quilt like textile objects, demonstrating how the quiltmaker used imagination and available materials, to create interesting and beautiful items to grace her home.
Following is a brief synopsis of the history of the tobacco insert, premium or novelty as it relates to the tobacco textile insert or premium. The article will later will focus on the many tobacco related textiles made from them, and how they were used in quilts and other textile items for the home.
Tobacco Tin Tags
The first tobacco inserts were the small metal or tin tags that came primarily in plug chewing tobacco, and sometimes in loose smoking and chewing tobacco. They were introduced in the 1870’s as advertisements and as labels, to identify the manufacturer of the tobacco product, and to distinguish one brand from another at the retail level. The small tags were actually inserted into or onto the plug of tobacco, and after the tobacco product was purchased and used, the tag was a reminder to the buyer of the brand name of the tobacco. These first tobacco inserts were made in a myriad of shapes and designs, some very elaborately decorated, and were quick to become popular collectibles. They were an inexpensive and important identifier and advertisement for the tobacco companies, usually noting the product and the company name, and were distributed in chewing tobacco for decades. Since thousands of different tin tags were distributed, it is understandable that a brisk hobby of collecting and trading quickly ensued and in fact, still exists today. Tags are small, generally under an inch in size, and are a compact collectible, with whole collections sometimes being held in one notebook.
Another early tobacco insert advertisement was the printed cigarette card, and they were another important form of advertisement for the tobacco companies. Given away in cigarette packaging from the 1870’s through the 1930’s they fell out of production during WWII due to the shortage of paper during the war. While a few cigarette companies issued cards post WWII, the practice was not widespread and most cards originate from before the War.
The cards were inserted into packages of cigarettes, serving the dual purpose of stiffening the paper package itself and advertising the name of the cigarette manufacture. Consumers gathered and saved these cards as collectibles, trading with friends for more desirable cards or when it was necessary to complete a series set. Cigarette cards are usually about 1 ½ x 2 ½ inches tall, with a printed design on one side of the card and an advertisement for the company on the reverse. Many are polychrome prints and are colorful and attractive.
The subjects of the cards vary widely with themes like flowers, animals, Hollywood actors and actresses, European Royalty, American Indians, sports stars of the day, and military themes. Many of the tobacco cards were distributed in series format, encouraging the collector to gather all of the cards from a series, which of course meant more sales for the tobacco company. Collector books or albums were available for purchase to hold the series cards, with collectors striving to collect all of the cards in the series to fill the appropriate spaces in the albums.
Today cigarette cards may be the most popular of the tobacco insert collectibles, having come in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of themes and series, giving the collector any number of subjects to collect. Though they are no longer distributed, they continue to be collected and one may even purchase new reproductions for some of the hard to find older cards.
Textile Tobacco Inserts and Premiums
It was between 1906 and 1910 that tobacco companies here in America, began inserting textile items into their cigarette and tobacco products. Most books written on the subject say the fad for these textiles was between 1910 and 1916. They also agree that at the beginning of WWI the practice of inserting textiles into cigarette or other tobacco packaging, here in the United States, was abandoned. The practice was extended into the 1920’s and later in European countries, so it is possible to find silks from this later period.
Some suggest that the tobacco companies stopped the distribution of these textiles because of the large expense incurred, reportedly costing up to $300,000 a year for one large company. Others suggest that the interest of collectors waned after a decade of collecting the inserts. Whatever the reason, tobacco companies stopped issuing the textile inserts and chose to advertise in other ways. Therefore there is a relatively short window of availability for the tobacco inserts and premiums, and that makes it easier for the quilt historian to date these unusual textile items.
These many years later it may seem odd that textiles like silks and flannels would be used as tobacco product inserts or premiums. But this was all happening at a time when there was much competition between the tobacco companies and advertising was important to entice new customers, and it was a good way to build brand loyalty.
It is thought that the practice of inserting textiles into the tobacco products may have been a direct marketing strategy to entice women into smoking cigarettes, although it wasn’t until several years later that tobacco companies openly seduced women into trying their cigarettes. It is true that women were encouraged to gather up these small textiles from spouses or friends who used tobacco products and sew them into useful and beautiful items. These tobacco related textiles were varied and colorful, and women were encouraged through literature distributed by the tobacco companies, to use them to make things for the home, including quilts, throws, pillows, table covers, purses and even curtains for windows and doors.
Silk Cigar Ribbons
Cigars were the most popular tobacco product used in the 19th Century, with most households having at least one cigar smoker. Tobacco shops selling cigars and other tobacco items were established business in every town, and carried selections of cigars for every budget, including expensive Cuban cigars.
The cigar ribbon was the first of these textiles associated with tobacco products, and dates back to as early as the mid 19th Century. As noted by author Gerald Petrone in “Cigar Box labels” the first company making these cigar ribbons dates back to 1868 in New York City. Silk ribbons, not actually tobacco inserts, and perhaps better called novelties, came with cigars when they were used to tie bundles of cigars together. The ribbons were used in factories by cigar makers to bundle cigars into groups of 25 or 50 for easier handling or counting. Sometimes manufacturers shipped cigars in large barrels, or boxes, that held hundreds of cigars, and distributors gathered the cigars into smaller numbers and bundled them together, using these colorful silk ribbons. While the ribbons were utilitarian in purpose, they were good forms of advertisement for the tobacco companies, differentiating their product from others because they were printed with the cigar maker’s name. Similar ribbons are still used today by some companies to identify their cigars, and can be found on fine Cuban cigars for example.
The ribbons came in attractive bright colors and were printed with the manufacturer’s or distributing cigar company’s name, usually in black. The most common colors for ribbons were gold and yellow, but we also find ribbons in colors like blue, green, orange, purple and red. The printing styles vary, with some ribbons simply printed with the name of the company, while others are elaborately printed with additional information such as dates or country of origin. Sometimes fancy design motifs are printed on the ribbons, for example, elaborate scroll work designs decorate some ribbons. A few ribbons were woven with the company’s name woven right in.
Cigar ribbons are narrow in width, usually about ¾ inches wide, by about 12-15 inches long. They are made of silk and are fragile and can show the same signs of fabric tendering or deterioration as other antique silk fabrics.
One of the most popular of the tobacco inserts or premiums was the tobacco or cigarette “silk”. While they are called silks they were actually made from a variety of fabrics such as silk or silk satin, a cloth combination of silk and cotton, a cotton sateen or even a plain woven cotton. The silks were often beautifully polychrome printed with varied subjects, and were usually printed with the tobacco company name.
Silks came printed in dozens of themes and in series formats. Very often the designs were the same types of designs as those seen on the cigarette cards. Themes included floral designs of every type, flags of all the different nations of the world, American Indian motifs including the great Indian Chiefs, popular actresses and actors, bathing beauties, Kings and Queens of the countries of Europe, animals of all types, and military themes with soldiers and medals from many countries, just to name a few.
As with the cigarette cards mentioned earlier, many of these silks were distributed in series, with some categories having dozens of different designs. One of the most popular categories was that of popular sports activities, with ballplayers and athletes of every variety printed on the silks. Some silks unite two popular subjects, for example colleges and sports. These silks bear the name of popular American colleges, and depict designs showing athletes participating in the sports activities of that college.
Tobacco silks were distributed in different ways. Many like the small 1 ¾” x 3″ silks were inserted in cigarette packages or cartons. Others were premiums given in exchange for coupons. Consumers could trade coupons for the larger silks, many measuring from 3 to 5 inches tall. One of the largest silks offered in the coupon catalogs is what was called a “pillow top” and is approximately 24 inches square. These larger silks displayed some of the same lovely designs as the smaller silks, while others were beautifully hand painted with fantastic landscapes, including one Japanese seaside scene.
Another popular textile insert or premium was the tobacco flannel. These were made of a cotton flannel fabric and printed in many designs, again in themes similar to the themes used on the cigarette cards. Popular subjects were flags of all the different countries of the world and athletes participating in various sports. One of the most unusual but popular subjects for flannels was the American Indian blanket. Some subjects seemingly targeted women, like butterflies, but the majority of flannel themes were male oriented.
As with the silks these flannels were distributed in or on, cigarette and tobacco products, with the larger flannels available in the premium catalogs, and sent to consumers in exchange for coupons, (which were also distributed in tobacco packaging.)
Tobacco flannels are sometimes referred to as “cigar felts”, and this is probably a misnomer, because it is not clear how or if they are associated with cigars. The inference is that the flannels were inserted into the boxes of cigars. But according to cigar box collector and historian Tony Hymen, there is no reason that they should be called “cigar felts”. Hymen, who is the curator of the National Cigar Box Museum, stated during correspondence with this writer, that he has never seen a felt in the over 100,000 cigar boxes he has examined in a period of over 20 years. He challenges anyone to prove to him that these felts, or flannels, came inside cigar boxes. (See below for more information on Tony Hyman and his book).
Additionally in his book “Tobacco Advertising: The Great Seduction”, author Gerald Petrone states that the….” (flannel) rugs were utilized to promote cigarettes, not cigars, a common collector misconception today”.
The popular idea that these flannels actually came in the cigar boxes may stem from the fact that sheets of paper, printed and plain, were sometimes placed in the box of cigars. Perhaps the two were misidentified with each other, and thus the flannels have been thought to come from the cigar boxes.
One might also question why they are called felts when they are obviously made from flannel. One advertisement does mention a “felt”, but the photo in the ad shows what appears to be the small rug, which is usually made up of a velveteen type pile or made of flannel. Perhaps this is a simple example of a word’s popular meaning changing over a century of years.
Flannels come in a wide range of sizes, the smallest is the 3 ½ x 5 ½ inch flannel and the largest, according to the catalogs, is apparently 30 inches long.
Carpets or Rugs
Another tobacco insert or premium is the small rug or carpet, which is sometimes confused with the flannels. J. R. Burdick in his book The American Card Catalog, catalogs the flannels and rugs separately, noting that the rug has a fringe and the flannel does not.
Rugs were distributed in the same way as the flannels, in or on cigarette or tobacco packaging. One advertisement for Egyptian Straight cigarettes states that the consumer will receive one rug in each package, plus a free rug from the tobacco shop dealer, “to induce you to try these wonderfully good cigarettes”. The dealer was instructed to apply to the manufacturer for the supply of free rugs so they would have them on hand, in the shop, enabling them to participate in the promotion.
One of the rug premiums that could be had from the coupon catalogs in exchange for coupons, was the Oriental carpet or rug, which was available in several sizes including some measuring up to several feet long. The rug seen in quilts is generally the small 3 x 5 inch size rug. These are usually designed to simulate Oriental carpets, and have often been used in dollhouses as diminutive rugs or carpets, in the well decorated, dollhouse parlor.
The rugs were unusual in some of their designs, while other designs were similar to the designs used on tobacco cards and flannels. Overall there do seem to be fewer rug themes than we see in the tobacco flannels. Oriental carpets are the most common, other themes are American Indian designs, children’s rhymes, and sports or college designs. Again we see a sharing of design motifs with the other tobacco inserts.
Some of these rugs or carpets are actually constructed like their room size counterparts, with a pile of colored yarns making up the design, and trimmed with a fringe on two sides. Others are made from velveteen with the design printed onto the pile. We find some made from flannel like the other flannels noted above, but these come with fringe identifying them as rugs. Amusingly, others are little woven, silk Oriental inspired creations, worthy of any dollhouse.
There sometimes seems to be a relationship between the types of tobacco in the package and the design on the rug insert. For example the Oriental rugs often came with the cigarettes made from Turkish tobacco. Turkish tobacco products were of a high quality, and advertisements of these products often emphasized the flamboyancy associated with all things Turkish. The Turkish tobacco products were more expensive and carried some of the nicer inserts.
Other Tobacco Inserts
In addition to the aforementioned tobacco inserts and premiums there were others that are less well known. One of the most unusual is the leather tobacco “card.” Made from leather and stamped with a variety of themes, these cards are often some of the most attractive of the inserts.
Another rarely seen premium is the embroidered applique. Usually seen in flora and fauna like themes, these are some of the most beautiful premiums. Seldom seen in America, these are most likely European distributions.
Non Tobacco Premiums
In addition to tobacco, other products like chewing gum, candy, and baking goods are associated with these textiles. Some brands of chewing gum were wrapped in paper wrappers that were actually printed coupons, and these could be exchanged for the same premiums as those for which the tobacco coupons were exchanged. Some of the premium books offer premiums in exchange for not only tobacco coupons but also the gum wrappers. For example the Kewpie designs, that are sometimes associated with tobacco, are cataloged as “Non Tobacco Issues” by Burdick in his book. Burdick has been the authority on cataloging American Cards since 1960.
Additionally, it is thought that silks were given away via other venues, for example, in magazines. According to one researcher they came in a British women’s magazine encouraging women to “collect” all the silks in a series of floral designs. So while the majority of the textile premiums we encounter came from tobacco products, it is possible that some came from altogether different venues.
Quilts and other Textile Household Items made from Tobacco Inserts and Premiums.
American women used these tobacco inserts or premiums to make items for the home, and one of the most unusual, looking back from our point in time, was the quilt. Quilts were made from silks, flannels, cigar ribbons and even the small, relatively thick rugs. While these quilts are seen in all sizes, they are usually small, simple in construction, and tied rather than quilted. That they were small is understandable, since the premiums are usually small and it probably took a good while to collect enough of them to make a quilt. Sometimes larger sized quilts are found, but generally, the large sized quilt is scarce, and this is especially true for the quilt made of silks.
Flannel and Rug Quilts
The most popular tobacco premium used in quilts was the flannel. Perhaps this is because generally, the flannels are somewhat larger than the silks. Quilts made with tobacco flannels are found with a variety of colorful designs, but the flannel with the flag design is the one we see used most often. Sometimes quilts contain a variety of flag designs and at other times the quiltmaker was careful to use a discriminating selection of flags, as when using only American flags. Other quilts contain a variety of flannel designs, for example, a quilt may contain flag designs along with butterfly designs, and American Indian designs.
Crib sized quilts or throws are the size most often found. We do sometimes see large bed sized quilts made from a variety of flannels, though these are scarce and are a treat to study with all the designs they contain. Doll quilts are sometimes seen, and they are colorful and often made with the less masculine designed flannels, using flannels with butterflies or other fanciful designs.
The flannel quilts are usually simple in construction, often flannels are sewn edge to edge, and seldom have alternate squares of fabric or sashing to separate the flannels. When alternating squares or sashing strips are used, the fabric is often a solid black, perhaps because it would coordinate better with the busy designs. Sometimes we see embroidery embellishment used on these quilts, the stitches covering the seams as it does in many crazy quilts. Flannel quilts can be heavy, and are usually tied, but occasionally they are batted and quilted.
The small rugs are seldom used alone, but are seen, used in conjunction with the flannels in quilts. The texture of the rugs can be similar to the texture of the flannels, and sewn into a quilt, they are often difficult to distinguish from the flannels, with similar designs and coloring. The thickness of the rugs would make stitching difficult, certainly only the most dedicated quilter would try and quilt through these rugs. While they are often found along side flannels in quilts, they are seldom found used in quilts along with the silks, which are very different in weight and texture.
Cigarette Silk Quilts
Silks were also used to make quilts, and again the majority of quilts are small. Since the size of most cigarette silks is about 1 ½ x 2 ½ it would take a considerable effort to gather enough silks to make a large quilt. We find most cigarette silk quilts in small, doll or crib sizes, with the doll quilt perhaps the most popular size. Even this small size takes a large collection of the small silks. Small quilts are found made with beautiful silks, often designs with women, flowers, butterflies, and are all the more lovely for the diminutive size of the silks.
When we do see full sized quilts they often contain hundreds or even thousands of silks. Larger full sized quilts when found are wonderful in their collections of silks. Often the quiltmaker placed a larger silk, or collection of larger silks, as the center emphasis of the quilt top. Usually the larger sized, scarce, silk premiums used in the center, are surrounded by smaller silks that make up the rest of the quilt top. The quilts are often made with a variety of designs, and silks with flowers, actresses, queens, butterflies, flags, and military officers and medals, are displayed side by side. Again like the flannel quilt, these quilts are usually tied, but sometimes they are batted and quilted.
Interestingly, sometimes tobacco silks are found in quilts like the silk crazy quilts. At other times silks in quilts that are thought to be tobacco inserts, may actually be silks from advertisement trade cards or silk ads issued by other manufacturers. Fabrics printed with tobacco advertisement or designs similar to tobacco cards like actresses or other popular personalities of the day may be found in quilts and mistaken for tobacco inserts. It takes a careful study of the history of tobacco inserts and premiums to distinguish these other silks in quilts.
Silk Cigar Ribbon Quilts
Perhaps the most rare of these tobacco novelty quilts is the cigar ribbon quilt. The ribbons are narrow, as previously noted, about ¾ inches wide. Making a quilt from these ribbons requires gathering hundreds, if not thousands, of them together. While cigars were the number one tobacco product used at the time, it must have taken years to collect enough ribbons to make a textile of any considerable size. Cigar ribbon manufacturers encouraged the collecting of the ribbons and even offered ribbons for sale to aid the homemaker in gathering enough ribbons for her project. Manufacturers may have also offered kits to make pillows and small quilts, the kit including a muslin background marked with a pattern layout and a large supply of the cigar ribbons.
Cigar ribbon quilts are usually small crib sized pieces. It is often difficult to identify the original purpose of these items, and distinguishing between quilts, throws, and table covers, can be impossible.
In making one of these quilts, the ribbons were placed side by side and stitched down, and were usually sewn down onto a foundation fabric. Since the ribbons are narrow and short in length, makers of these items used the ribbons in unique ways, sewing the ribbons together in various configurations of squares, diamonds and triangles to make up the top of the quilt. Ribbons are sometimes interlaced to give a checkerboard effect, or sometimes pieces are embellished with embroidery, often black, in stitching similar to crazy quilt stitching.
Cigar ribbons bare the name of their manufacturer and it can be interesting to note the use of the names in arranging the ribbons. The names sometimes become an important element in the design, and are carefully placed and arranged on the piece. At other times the names seem secondary and of no importance, being seemingly ignored in the design. Sometimes, but rarely, entire pieces are made with one brand of cigar. More often a variety of cigar brands are used. Colored ribbons are not often found, and items sporting a rainbow of colored ribbons are rare.
Cigar ribbon pieces are often trimmed with fringe or buttonhole embroidery stitches around the edges. Backs are often silk or sateen fabrics in black or gold. They seldom contain batts, nor are they quilted, being held to the backing with ties or straight stitching.
Full sized quilts are rare, but when found are often complicated designs, probably made necessarily so by the narrowness and short lengths of the ribbons.
Other Textiles Articles made with Tobacco Inserts and Premiums.
Since they were small in size, and perhaps thought of as more attainable, the sofa pillow or cushion, as they were sometimes called, are the most often found article made from textile tobacco inserts and premiums. These pillows could be made with a reasonably sized collection of inserts, and often pillows are found with matched sets of designs or even entire series of designs. Pillows are often trimmed with fancy rope trim or ruffles. Often pillow tops that were never made into pillows are found, with the tobacco textiles still colorful and strong, having been stored away and never used.
The most often encountered tobacco insert or premium used for pillows is the cigarette silk. Women were encouraged to gather the silks and make sofa pillows or cushions for the home. Averaging about 20 inches in size, the pillow top can be made with a small collection of silks. When we find these pillows today they are often minus their stuffing, and sometimes have even been separated from their backing. Perhaps they are separated and removed because the weight of the added cotton batting can cause stress to the delicate silks. It is sometimes difficult to decide whether these small pieces made from cigarette silks are doll quilts or pillow tops.
Tobacco flannels were used occasionally to make pillow tops or covers. These often have a flannel backing and buttonhole embroidery along the outside edges.
Cigar silks pillows, are the most rare of the pillows. They can be unique designs made with interwoven ribbons and embellished with embroidery. Pillows are certainly the most often found of the cigar ribbon textiles, the larger quilts as noted above, are rare.
Table Cloths and Coverings
Table coverings are often confused with quilts and throws, because they are sized similarly, and often they are made in the same way the quilts were. Sometimes one can tell by the design, but other times it is only the choice of trim or the presence, or absence, of the backing, that gives us a clue, as to whether the item is a quilt or table cover.
Tobacco premiums were used to make other articles like purses or reticules, and even articles of clothing. Men’s smoking jackets and robes have been seen made of cigar ribbons, appropriately perhaps, since men smoked the cigars. This writer has even seen slippers made with the cigar ribbons.
The textile tobacco insert or premium is unique among tobacco collectibles. The practice of using these textiles as inserts was initiated in an effort to encourage their collecting among women, thereby boosting the sales of the advertised tobacco manufacturer. The practice may also have been an effort to entice women into smoking at a time when competition for business between the tobacco companies was fierce. Though the practice of giving away these textiles in tobacco products, which sometimes cost more than the product itself, was understandably short lived, we now, almost one hundred years later, find these textiles sewn into quilts and other household articles. These unusual, tobacco related quilts and quilt related articles are another wonderful example of women endeavoring to make their homes a more comfortable and attractive place to live by making and using quilts.
Laurette Carroll is a Quilt Historian and Collector, and Quilt Maker, living in Southern California.
Quilts and other items from the collection of Laurette Carroll
Photographs by Laurette Carroll
Copyright 2005 by Laurette Carroll
To read more about tobacco collectibles see the following:
Gerald Petrone M.D., The Great Seduction.
Frank Doggett, Cigarette Cards and Novelties.
Louis Storino, Chewing Tobacco Tin Tags.
Robert Forbes and Terence Mitchell, American Tobacco Cards.
J. R. Burdick, The American Card Catalog.
Gerald Petrone, Cigar Box Labels.
Robert K. Heimann, Tobacco and Americans.
Also see Tony Hyman’s Museum’s web site at www.nationalcigarmuseum.com
For additional information on quilts and other textiles made with Tobacco Premiums see the following:
Article by Ethel Abrams and Rachel Pannabecker titled “Better Choose Me”: Addictions to Tobacco Collecting, and Quilting, 1880 – 1920, Volume 21 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group, Uncoverings 2000.
Article titled “When the Smoke Cleared”, by Dorothy Cozart.
The Quilt Digest, number 5, 1987.
I would like to thank collectors Kenneth Silverman, Tony Hyman and Ethel Abrams for sharing their extensive knowledge with me.