The History and Use of Silver Cigarette Cases
The cigarette case is still a fashionable item even if cigarette sales have fallen off in recent years. This is because of the high-quality work and craftsmanship that goes into the collectable versions of this venerable product. They were created to keep cigarettes protected while not drying them out. The most desired examples on the antique market are from the Victorian era. These sterling silver cigarette cases which are highly decorated made it well into the 20th century in terms of their ornate design.
What is a Cigarette Case?
A standard cigarette case is a small, hinged box that is rectangular and thin. You’ll often see them with rounded sides and edges, so they can be carried comfortably in the suit pocket. A typical case will hold from eight to ten cigarettes comfortably inside. The cigarettes are held against the inner side of the case, sometimes just one or both sides. Today, elastic is used to keep the cigarettes in place, but for decades the cases came with individual holders to ensure the cigarette did not move when it was being transported.
The cigarette case or tin as it was sometimes called, should not be confused with a cigarette box, which is larger and designed to hold more cigarettes in the comfort of the home. In the US, the boxes were often called “Flat Fifties” because they could store 50 cigarettes.
The exact date in which cigarette cases were created is not known. However, their emergence in the 19th century coincided with the mass production of cigarettes which made them a standard size. The uniformity of size that manufactured cigarettes offered allowed for the development of the cigarette case. As with most inventions, it started out with a simple design and made from standard metals. However, it was soon discovered that more precious metals, such as sterling silver, were perfect for the cases because of their durability, toughness, and decorating them was easy.
By the end of the Victorian era, the cigarette cases became more elaborate and ornate as expected from the time. As the cases became more fashionable, they also became more decorated. First with simple monograms, then engravings and jewels to make them really stand out. Many jewellery designers offered their take on cigarette cases, including Peter Carl Faberge, famous for this Faberge eggs, created a line of gold cigarette cases lined with gems for the Tsar of Russia and his family. Today, these cases can fetch around $25,000 and are highly prized for their unique, ornate appearance.
Sterling silver became the most popular material for cigarette cases, although many made from gold or other precious metals were also found. Some of the cases had chains attached, much like you see on pocket watches, to prevent them slipping out of the pocket. Much of the overly ornate designs faded simply because comfort took on a greater emphasis. Plus, the ease of pulling the case from the pocket and putting it back meant ornate designs didn’t suit the job.
The Height of Production
Cigarette case production reached its height in the 1920s or “Roaring 20s” in the United States. The cases themselves became sleeker and more fashionable befitting the times as the Victorian era had passed. As the economy grew, more people entered the middle class and started to enjoy the wealth they had accumulated which included buying cigarettes and their cases.
By the time World War II arrived, The Great Depression had sunk the optimism of the Roaring 20’s, but it didn’t deter cigarette smoking as nearly 75% of adults were smoking cigarettes on a regular basis. Cigarette case purchases still increased and those who enjoyed a good smoke highly prized them.
The Second World War
Numerous stories about how the sterling silver cigarette cases saved lives during WWII – the case stopping or at least slowing down a bullet. One such survivor was actor James Doohan, of Star Trek fame, who said that his cigarette case prevented a bullet from entering his chest.
Cigarette cases were a strong part of pop culture, perhaps most notably featured in the James Bond films of the 1960’s. The spy would often carry a cigarette case that concealed weapons or devices used in his trade. Perhaps the most famous example was in “The Man with the Golden Gun” – a cigarette case became the weapon itself.
The End of the Cigarette Case
Although still produced, including fashionable sterling silver cigarette cases, the end of their popularity came in the 20th century. The combination of everyday suits becoming unfashionable contributed to this trend. In addition, the practicality of a cigarette pack that fitted comfortably into the shirt pocket also helped their demise. The expense of carrying cigarette cases became rather impractical. Ultimately, it was the reduction of cigarette smokers that has had the biggest effect on the popularity of cigarette cases. Today, well under 25% of adults in the US alone smoke cigarettes . This means that demand for cases has dropped considerably as well.
However, there was a brief resurgence of cigarette cases in Europe, including those crafted from sterling silver. This occurred in the first few years of the 21st century. Because the European Union slapped large warning labels on cigarette packs, the cases made a comeback. People could carry their cigarettes without having to see the warning labels on the outside.
Still, this Victorian era creation began to lose its purpose with everyday people. However, it remains a valuable collector’s item and makes a nice gift for the cigarette smoker. Especially a smoker who wears a suit or smokes exotic brands. For collectors there are some 19th century models that are quite valuable due to their ornate design reflecting bygone eras.