Cigar Label Art Story


Inner labels on 
cigar boxes

Outer label placement 
on cigar box end

End label on 
cigar box

Box seal or nail tag placement on cigar box

Masterpieces in Miniature


Stone lithography was invented by Aloys Senfelder in 1798. Senfelder was looking for a cheaper method to produce his plays than using expensive hand-engraved copper plates. After much experimentation, Senfelder achieved better results using a grease- based ink on Bavarian limestone. Senfelder called his new process chemical printing, or stone lithography.

Crayon chromolithography (1870s Era). Note distinct crayon marks.


Senfelder’s was the first, flat-surface, or planographic, printing process. This process was characterized by a printing surface on which the printed area is no higher than the non-printed area. Senfelder also found that a wet limestone surface would repel a grease-based printing ink, and that an image drawn on the surface with a grease pencil or fine brush would repel water and attract ink.

Crayon Chromolithograph of Indian, untitled

Stone lithography depends on the mutual repulsion of grease and water. Any drawing on the stone surface could be reproduced by bringing a damp sheet of paper into contact with the freshly inked image.

Sample label showing 1890s bulk label prices

In 1836, a Frenchman, Godefroi Engelmann, and his son, Jean, invented a method of color printing called chromolithography. This method used red, yellow and blue pigments to produce seven stone color images.

Stone lithography became the 19th century’s chief means of inexpensively reproducing works of art in color and illustrating books and magazines. Although laborious, stone lithography, when set up, could produce thousands of images without image degradation. The new technique soon became more popular than steel or copper engravings, which lost their image sharpness after only 30 to 50 prints were struck.

On Left: Stone-produced label (Note distinct random stippling marks)
On Right: Modern photomechanical produced label 
(Note uniform half-tone screen dots)

The first private American concern to sell stone-produced prints was founded by Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888). Currier and his partner, James Ives (1824-1895), became print makers to the American people. [better known as Currier & Ives.]

Stone lithography in America reached its zenith with the work of Louis Prang who came to Boston from Germany. Prang made lithographs that used as many as 44 separate stones. Prang also was the first to add embossing and imitation brush strokes, and he pioneered a lacquering process for utmost realism and dimensionality.

On Left: Stone-produced label
On Right: Photomechanical version of stone produced label


Prang's chromolithographs were made up of intermingled solid blocks of colors placed side-by-side in small color areas, creating a complete range of hues and tints capable of reproducing the entire color spectrum. This technique was called crayon chromolithography. Most labels produced in the 1870s used this technique. Later, stone lithography be-came even more sophisticated with the use of hand-stippling. Stippling is the process of applying a series of inter-mingled dots to the image on the stone to produce variant degrees of shading. Each image would contain thousands of hand-applied stipple dots when it was finished. This concept, when used with color, produced a highly accurate rendition of the artist’s original image.

Immigrants from Germany brought their unique skills in stone lithographic printing to the U.S. and were responsible for most of the quality chromolithographed labels produced from 1860 to 1920.

Lithographer engraving image on limestone

Stone lithography was an expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming process. Each label could involve a dozen highly skilled specialists, take a month to create, and cost upwards of $6000.00 (in 1900 dollars) to produce.

Bavarian limestone printing stone 28" X 38"

Each new label or print required the preparation of a different Bavarian limestone for each color used. Most cigar labels required 8-11 colors to produce a finished image. The first step in the lengthy process to create a new label began with the lithographic artist who would mentally decompose the design into its individual colors using a key-line drawing. This drawing looked like a paint-by-numbers kit. Next, the stone was carefully cleaned and polished with a thin solution of gum arabic which, when washed off, left a thin film of the gum in, rather than on, the stone, thus making the entire stone’s surface impervious to grease. The image was intensified by using a dilute nitric acid solution to etch the engraved image. The design, having been traced from the key-line sketch, was then scratched (engraved) in the film of gum using sharp pointed steel tools. Engraving the stone was a very tedious process, since practically all the work had to be done with great care under a magnifying glass. The engraved lines were made very shallow; the aim was to cut only through the prepared thin gum surface. This would uncover the absorbing qualities of the stone at these points, and then the stone would take ink.

Senfelder’s first lithographic press


Another method used a specially treated piece of transfer paper to apply the image with grease containing ink, in mirror reverse on the stone, one color at a time. Each transfer paper contained one of the colors in the image. This image then would be pressed on the specially prepared limestone and, using pressure, the image finally was transferred to the stone and the paper was removed.

Diagrammatic view of Hoe & CO. flatbed lithographic steam press


Water was applied to the limestone and was absorbed by the etched sect-ions of the stone. When applied, printing ink for that color adhered only to the image on the stone. Damp paper was then pressed to the stone and an image was produced in the color represented by that stone. The same process was repeated for each color in the design (as many as 13 colors were used), the lithographer carefully registering the same piece of paper on each separate stone. Each separate color used in the image required its own stone!

Stone lithography’s biggest problem was the use of stones. The Bavarian limestones were 3-4 inches thick, ranged in size from 6"X 8" to 44"X 62" inches in area, super-heavy, and hard to handle. Some stones weighed as much as 600 pounds, and the stones broke easily. Unfortunately, the stone lithography process could be auto-mated only to a point; the process was filled with too much stop- and-return motion to be a truly efficient.

Even with the inherent inefficiencies and waste in the process, so great was the lithographer’s skill, even after 10 or more trips to separate stones, the registration of the same piece of paper to the other stones was within the diameter of a pin hole. Still, on a good day, thousands of these multi-colored beauties could be produced .

Higher-priced labels used 10 or more colors plus bronze or 24K gold leaf. Bronze was usually burnished or buffed to a metallic luster. As if that was not enough, in the mid-1890s, lithographers began using 38-ton presses and precision-machined dies to emboss many of their labels. The embossing process highlighted the raised portions of the label with 24 K gold leaf or bronze. Embossing gave the labels their life-like dimensionality; gold coins found on most labels now looked like real gold pieces. Now, women had real curves, wore ornate jewelry, and showcased elaborate coiffures with discernible hair.

Embossing had an unintended but desirous effect. Most early labels were printed on cheap short-fiber paper often containing wood cellulose. With age, this paper discolored and became brittle. Embossed labels had to be printed on long-fiber (like linen) rag- stock paper as embossing in 38-ton presses required the fibers to stretch and not break. The final result is that a label, printed 100 years ago on acid- free rag paper, now appears clean and bright with no signs of aging. Stone chromolithography produced a brilliant multi-colored duplication of the original art work. Some labels look like oil paintings, brush strokes and all. The brilliance of stone- produced chromolithography ebbed through the 1920s in synchronization with the slow decline experienced in the cigar industry. The mechanical efficiency and the use of light-weight, cheaply produced metal plates, in high-speed, high-through-put rotary presses, quickly replaced the heavy, cumbersome Bavarian limestones.

The end of an era was at hand. Photomechanical lithography had begun to take over the market even in the 20s, and sadly, printers, no longer used 38-ton presses to emboss their labels, nor did they have to use 10 to 13 colors in a single image. Now, they could get by with only four colors. No longer was bronze and gold-leaf gilding needed; these modern labels would have none of these old trappings.

The art of the cigar label was quickly coming to an end. These superior labels with layered vivid colors and hues, embossed and gilded, had all vanished by 1930. The labels that were not already on cigar boxes were relegated to storage in dusty old factories and warehouses until they were found by diggers and pickers. Most were hauled unceremoniously to dumps or sold by the bundle at flea markets for ridiculous giveaway prices. The magnificent depth and luminescence of these Victorian ephemera will not pass our way again.

The quality of commercial printing during the Golden Age of Stone Lithography between 1880 and 1920 has never been duplicated and probably never will be. Luckily, precious examples of cigar-label-art are avail-able for our collecting pleasure.

Buy cigar-label art! Each and every stone-produced label is a true collect-able original work of art involving the artist and master craftsmen at every step of its manufacture. Every label is Americana at its finest in a miniature form that can never be faithfully reproduced or copied. Every theme, from mythological to historical, is available.


  1. Most cigar-art labels are heavily embossed with real 24K gold leaf or bronze. Most modern printing is not embossed or gilded.
  2. All cigar-art labels produced from 1880-1920 have distinct stipple dots. Learn to recognize stippling. Early 1870s cigar-art labels have distinct crayon marks rather than stippling, and these labels are not embossed.
  3. Photomechanical or modern offset- printed labels have only four colors and are rarely embossed. Look for blurred all-uniform size, four color, fine dots produced using half-tone screens.
  4. Currently, It is not technically possible, or economically feasible to reproduce the look, feel and brilliant colors found in real stone-produced commercial art. Look closely at as many good examples of cigar-label art as you can find. Then compare them with the best modern art printing money can buy. You will see a difference you will never forget!

copyright © 1997 Wayne H. Dunn & Edwin D. Barnes


Contact Information

Wayne H. Dunn

Telephone:    (949) 582-7686
Address:        P O Box 3902, Mission Viejo, CA 92691

E-mail:   or

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Last modified: September 16, 2008