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. Created by the practical need to keep cigarettes protected while not drying them out, the most desired 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 that were being produced 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 jewelry 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, the cases are worth roughly $25,000 and are highly prized for their unique, ornate appearance.
Sterling silver became the most popular material for cigarette cases, although many were made from gold or other precious metals. Some of the cases came with chains, much like you see with pocket watches, so they could be attached to the pocket and prevent slipping out. 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 that ornate designs were not well suited.
The Height of Production
The era of the cigarette case at least in terms of production reached its height in the United States starting in the 1920s or “Roaring 20s” as they are often called. 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 were accumulating which included buying cigarettes and their cases.
By the time World War II arrived, The Great Depression had sunk the optimism of the Roaring 20s, but it didn’t deter cigarette smoking as nearly 75% of adults were smoking cigarettes on a regular basis. This meant that the purchase of cigarette cases, including those made of sterling silver, were still on the rise and highly prized by those who enjoyed a good smoke.
The Second World War
During the war itself, there were numerous stories about how the sterling silver cigarette cases saved lives by stopping or at least slowing down bullets which struck them. 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 1960s. The spy would often carry a cigarette case that concealed weapons or devices for use in his trade. Perhaps the most famous use was in the film “The Man with the Golden Gun” which used a cigarette case as part of the weapon itself.
The End of the Cigarette Case
While they are still produced, including the fashionable sterling silver cigarette cases, the 20th century brought about the end of the era. The combination of suits going out of fashion for everyday use along with the practicality of the cigarette pack that fit comfortably into the shirt pocket or purse made the expense of carrying cigarette cases rather impractical. Ultimately, it was the reduction of cigarette smokers that has managed to reduce the emphasis on the cigarette cases. Today, well under 25% of adults in the US alone smoke cigarettes which means that demand for the cases has dropped considerably as well.
However, there was a brief resurgence of cigarette cases in Europe, including those crafted from sterling silver, in the first few years of the 21st century. This happened because the European Union slapped large warning labels on cigarette packs, so the cases made a comeback because 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, but it remains a valuable collector’s item and makes a nice gift for the cigarette smoker who wears a suit or likes to smoke exotic brands. In fact, you can still find them in sterling silver and for collectors there are some 19th century models that are quite valuable due to their ornate design which reflects a bygone era.