Diminutive Deco: Cigarette Holders in the Jazz Age
By Rebecca McNamara
Men in tailored suits and women in sequined dresses dancing the Charleston in black-and-white films. Glimmering skyscrapers. Brass bands playing in smoky Harlem nightclubs. Lawn parties with endless cocktails on Long Island. Radio City Music Hall. These are the images conjured up by the Jazz Age and its Art Deco aesthetic. But the Deco was all in the details: sunbursts on iron gates; fringed dresses cut just so; gold-leaf ceilings; Bakelite radios; stylized, geometric designs affecting nearly everything from posters to furnishings; and a diminutive object held casually in the hand as smoke wafted in the air.
The cigarette holder protected fingers or gloves, as well as teeth, from staining, allowed the cigarette to be smoked down while keeping fingers cool, and kept smoke away from sensitive eyes, but it was really all about show. Anyone could smoke a cigarette, rich and poor alike, but to stand apart, to make a statement about personality and class, users enlivened the paper-wrapped tobacco with a variety of accessories: cigarette cases, ashtrays, lighters, match safes, and of course, most visibly, the holder.
In the narrative of Jazz Age smoking and its accoutrements, the cigarette (and its holder) played a surprisingly significant social role. It was not unheard of for elite women to smoke cigarettes in the first decades of the twentieth century—Vogue and other periodicals occasionally reported on women smoking in fancy hotels and even suggested smoking accessories as appropriate gifts for both men and women as early as 1908—but it was not widely accepted, especially in public. American society frowned upon female tobacco users, and colleges even attempted to ban women from smoking well into the 1920s. But as women increasingly worked outside the home, gained higher levels of education and, as of 1920, voted for their government representatives, the cigarette became a simple but conspicuous means to proclaim their equality with men.
Tobacco manufacturers were happy to take up the feminist cause and target female consumers, albeit with different motives. One of the boldest marketing moves aimed at encouraging women to smoke was led by American Tobacco’s Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who used psychology in his role as a public-relations pioneer.
In 1929, Bernays paid socially savvy debutantes to smoke Lucky Strikes as they walked in the well-publicized New York City Easter Parade. The message was clear: if men could smoke, so could women, and there would be no stopping them. Each cigarette was dubbed a “torch of freedom,” a
Cubist geometries and Ballets Russes–inspired colors characterize this black and red cigarette holder with matching cigarette case, Auguste Bonaz, Paris, c. 1925–35.
Chaumet holder in 18-karat gold with a diamond band and amber mouthpiece, Paris, 1930.
An extra-long, brightly colored cigarette holder added flair to the flapper’s persona, probably Continental Europe,
direct, visible, and public way to undermine cultural norms just like the flapper’s unconfined, revealing clothing, new dance styles, and urban nightlife.
Tobacco companies targeted women through print advertisements as well. Chesterfield’s “Blow some my way” campaign showed women longing for their beaus’ cigarette smoke while Marlboro ads, with the tagline “Mild as May,” featured women in cafes and on beaches—their good taste and fashionability identified by their cloche hats, loose-fitting clothing, and of course, not just a cigarette, but a holder between their fingers.
The holder had become such a staple of daily life that the Jewelers’ Circular, an industry trade magazine, credited the rise of female smokers not to women’s liberation but to the cigarette holder industry. Even if the claim was perhaps too generous, by the 20s, most jewelers—including Boucheron, Chaumet, Cartier, Tiffany, Dunhill, Van Cleef & Arpels, and other high-end establishments in the United States and Europe—carried smoking accessories. Placing a cigarette in an expensive holder was a symbol of wealth, elegance, and taste. Hollywood studio publicity stills of men and women alike enhanced the glamor of smoking as the famous cradled a cigarette holder between their fingers—a prop variously offering a sense of aloofness, modernity, an inquiring mind, sexuality, or simple fashionability, depending on one’s stance and expression.
By the early 1930s, the cigarette holder was considered an essential accessory for any fashionable woman. When a 1930 issue of Vogue instructed readers on what the “smart woman” should keep in her handbag, the black enamel cigarette holder in a small eggshell case by Dunhill (for day) and a Cartier gold and tortoiseshell cigarette holder (for evening) were recommended alongside a tortoiseshell comb, a bill clip, a vanity case, a cigarette case, and other “examples of charm and good taste.”
Smoking was not something some people did—it was something everybody did—or so it seemed. At the great New York nightclubs like the Stork Club, Delmonico’s, 21 Club, and the Rainbow Room, smoking was a given. Women dubbed “cigarette girls” sold packs of cigarettes and cigars from trays suspended from their necks. Ashtrays adorned tables and inexpensive, branded holders were given out to advertise the clubs. The holder was part of the theater of nightlife, exemplified by the telescopic model. Closed and held in a thumb-size case attached to a chain around a woman’s neck or on her hand-muff, worn on a wristlet, or tucked in her purse, a few flips of the wrist would release the holder, its full length revealed—a silver ziggurat in miniature. A cigarette would be tucked in, and a courteous man would reach over to provide a match and offer a light.
Promotional cigarette holders made of plasticized paper with plastic mouthpieces for New York’s Stork Club, c. 1930–65, and Delmonico’s, c. 1950–60.
Though decidedly fashionable, cigarette holders were not just for affluent smokers. They could be purchased at the nearest dry goods store for ten cents each, at department stores such as Bonwit Teller or Saks Fifth Avenue where a gold jewel-studded and ivory option might be had for ten dollars, or at tobacconists’ shops, which offered an astonishing variety of styles and prices. In a 1921 Jewelers’ Circular, London- and New York–based Alfred Orlik, manufacturer and importer of smokers’ articles, advertised 750 styles of cigarette holders in Whitby jet, amber, tortoiseshell, ivory, 14-karat gold, platinum, and other materials.
Boucheron holder in 18-karat gold with diamond accents and a tortoiseshell mouthpiece, Paris, 1928.
Cartier cigarette holder with platinum and diamond bands, New York or Paris, 1920s.
Sterling silver telescopic cigarette holder with ivory mouthpiece and silver and enamel case, imported by George Stockwell & Co. Ltd., London, 1922.
Cigarette holders found a place among the costume jewelry trend that prized luxury in design over luxury in material and embraced trends over timeless design. Parisian jewelry firm Auguste Bonaz crafted an ultimate moderne smoking set: a bold red and black holder with matching cigarette case. Not content with a standard round opening, the tapered tip is a hexagon, creating greater geometric contrast with the cylindrical cigarette. Other manufacturers similarly squared off the holder’s end while the extra-long, brightly colored plastic holders, signifying extravagance and excess, lent a theatrical quality. Plastics made any form possible, and the subtlest change in this small object could create a striking effect.
Even in its most basic form, the cylindrical holder, streamlined in its very essence, easily harmonized with the prevailing geometric aesthetic of the period. The Zeus Corp.’s holders, popular beginning in the late 1930s, were basically sleek, simple devices with a filter that promised to remove nearly all of the nicotine (ironically at a time when tobacco manufacturers proclaimed nicotine posed no health concerns). A basic form could be purchased for one dollar, but Saks advertised Zeus holders for both men and women in various colors or with sparkling marcasite rings and mounts for up to 15 dollars, appealing to various tastes and budgets.
Cigarettes were perhaps the ultimate frivolity in an era that seemed to thrive on the frivolous, a notion highlighted by the accessories that accompanied them. Smoking was a habit that required nothing more than a flame. As we now know, the lasting effects of smoking are disastrous. But in interwar New York, cigarettes and smoking accessories were both a standard part of daily life and an important social tool. By elongating and adding individual pizzazz to the cigarette, the holder transformed the simple stick into a symbol of chicness and style.
About the Author:
Rebecca McNamara, an art, design, and material culture historian, currently holds a curatorial position at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She is co-author, with Martin Barnes Lorber, of A Token of Elegance: Cigarette Holders in Vogue (Officina Libraria, 2015). An e-book, tentatively titled Widows Unveiled: Fashionable Mourning in Late Victorian New York, is forthcoming from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum/Parsons DesignFile series.
All photos: John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.
Rather than mimicking the cylindrical cigarette, this colorful plastic holder has a cube-like shape, United States, 1920s.
Metal cigarette holder with diamond girdles, Zeus Corp.,