The most significant addition of the last 15 years to cigarette pack design was the surgeon general's caution, now a warning, hung like a scab from the light blues and vibrant greens of the contemporary package. Most smokers sense at some level that the modern pack's cleanliness is calculated to counteract a malignancy within, but few realize that such concern with health is as old as the habit, and has its roots in wartime.
Columbus is said to have found Indians rolling smokes in scraps of cornhusk. Spanish beggars fashioned cigarettes from cigar butts and pipe dottle picked up from the gutters of Seville during the 16th century. But cigarettes did not become popular with the European middle class until the Crimean War. In that Russo-Turkish fiasco of 1854, French and British troops were garrisoned with Turkish soldiers, who relished their smokes. Legend has it that the first paper cigarette was rolled a few years earlier, by an Egyptian cannoneer at the siege of Acre in 1832.
Cigarettes were a conventient and efficient means of conserving tobacco during wartime; they were narcotic and helped ease stress, but they also were considered lucky talismans. It was a tradition of folklore that smoke possessed the magic capacity to ward off misfortune, and the word "luck" would appear on cigarette packages long before the marketing of Lucky Strike.
Cigarettes traveled home with Europeans after the Crimea, becoming a badge of overseas duty; they were smoked as veterans reminisced about the front, or in clubs, quietly, where their use signified a world-weary internationalism. The earliest brands were Turkish with names that evoked the Crimea: Xanthe and Kohinoor.
Cigarette smokers were deemed tough, romantic and enamored of adventure -- the brand names suggested as much.
Just as the Crimea introduced cigarettes to middle-class Europeans, so did the Civil War first tickle the American middle class's taste for paper-rolled tobacco -- as Robert Sobel has noted, in They Satisfy. Union troops traded food for cigarettes while they campaigned in the South, and carried their smoking habit home to Northern cities. Import houses tried to snag the trade with brand names suggestive of the East: Turkish Elegantes, Moscows, Sultanas. But the Americans hardly nibbled. It wasn't until the 1870s that an American brand, Sweet Caporal, in a decidedly American pack, claimed a significant market and paved the way for a slew of brands and package designs reminiscent of the Southern front.
The Union veteran wore his amokes as proudly as his European counterpart, and like him desired a leaf from vanquished soil. Victorian packs such as Duke's Cameo, Cross-Cut, Duke's Best and Richmond Club were Southern, suggestive of the product within and elaborately decorated with antebellum graphics, Southern belles and the like. The exoticism of such pack design reflected the romantic tradition of the South, and enhanced the "dreamy" aspects of smoking.
Buck Duke, the industry's first tycoon, used package art to the hilt, popularizing the cigarette pack card, a card-board stiffener sandwiched between cigarettes for protection. These stiffeners were traded like bubble gum cards, fitted with portraits of Indian chiefs, athletes, suggestively posed actresses, politicians and, not surprisingly, soldiers. Duke went so far as to include intricate depictions of famous battles on his cards. But it was the Gay Nineties' internationalism and the World War I that firmly cemented combat to the promotion of cigarettes.
The World War I packs were astounding. The British cut a trail with brands such as Glory Boys, Iron Duke, Gerard's Fighter, Player's Navy Cut and Will's Fearless, depicting soldiers and colorful battle scenes. These war packs are well-reproduced in Chris Mullen's Cigarette Pack Art.
Americans did their part with the brands Marine and Navy, and with slogans such as, "Murad -- After the Battle, the Most Refreshing Smoke," and "When our boys light up, the Huns will light out!" Cigarette sales tripled at home, and Bull Durham contracted with the government to have its entire stock shipped to the doughboys.
Gen. John J. Pershing said, "You ask what we need to win this war, I answer tobacco, as much as bullets." Cigarettes were not just a convenience, but a talismanic necessity.
The Camel package proved more subtle. After the tradition of Murads, Fatimas, Meccas and Omars, it hearkened to the Crimean War with its Middle-Eastern design, suggesting to an interventionist public romantic places, imperialism and risk. It was a total success when introduced in 1913. The camel and pyramids, of course, were pure Egypt. Things Egyptian, in Victorian symbology, were inextricably linked to mortality. And to empire, since Napolean's sacking of the Nile. The pyramids had influenced entire schools of sepulchral and imperial design. The Camel package became an immediate subject of meditation, one suitable for wartime.
Three brands dominated the industry between the wars: Camel, Lucky Strike and Chesterfield. Only Luckies were not figurative in design; Chesterfields flaunted an imperial logo against a white field, with Turkish minarets as a backdrop. Lucky Strike knew its green pack to be unpopular, and with the outbreak of World War II saw an opportunity for change.
"Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!" barked the ad campaign, most successful of the decade. With its clean white pack replacing the green, with its block lettering and cryptic legend, "L.S./M.F.T. -- Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco," imitating Morse code, Luckies increased its sales 40 percent. The copper-based green paint supposedly was saved for the war effort, but Luckies' real impetus was profit and something new: "modern" design.
New York's 1939 World's Fair had influenced everything from toothbrushes to ocean liners, and introduced the word "streamlined" to America's vocabulary. Internationalism was a Fair theme, as were the future and youth. Bauhaus designers provided the corporate classroom for a dissemination of such ideas. Primary colors, geometric form and sans-serif lettering were their principal contributions to graphics. The more white the better. Pall Mall, in its advertisements, linked modernity to military rearmament -- as Harris Levine noted, in Good-Bye to All That -- and popularized the king-sized cigarette as a result of the World's Fair. Pall Mall's greater length previewed dramatic changes in postwar package design.
In the meantime, cigarettes solidified their alliance to the war effort. "Keep 'em Smoking," Chesterfield ordered. "Our Fighting Men Rate the Best!" Camels and Luckies countered with similar mandates. Gen. Douglas MacArthur pleaded for cigarettes abroad and President Roosevelt granted deferments to tobacco growers. By the armistice in 1945, cigarettes were so valued by the military that they became the principal currency in Europe. The tobacco companies were not only producing talismanic weaponry, but also military scrip.
Bauhaus, as a school of design, was Germanic, and the postwar obsession with conquered territory proved no less severe in America of the 1950s. Bauhaus was the international style, and internationalism was desired at every level of consumption: from architecture to automobiles.
Cigarette packages were the readiest badges of overseas duty, and new brands such as Salem, Winston, Newport and Kent complied with pack designs blunted as the bunkers of Weimar housing. The new packs were nonfigurative and brightly colored, employing modern typefaces. And they were combative, for an enemy stalked the industry -- one inimical to its talismanic claims.
In 1952, Reader's Digest published an article linking cancer to cigarette smoking, and by 1954, cigarette profits had declined sharply in the wake of public concern. Throughout the 1950s a controversy raged between tobacco and antismoking lobbies -- cancer was McCarthyism to the industry -- and brands tried to scrub up their look. Both filter tips and king-size were ballyhooed as panaceas, and package art reflected the new cleanliness.
The cool green of Salem, the blue of Newport, with its spinnaker emblem and sans-serif lettering, were calculated efforts to stem the tide. Kent introduced nuclear-age jargon to its pack with the "Famous Micronite Filter" legend, L&M with its "Miracle Tip of Alpha-Cellulose." Marlboro pushed for the ruggedness of an American outdoors, offering its product in a "crushproof" box of military chevron design. We've taken off the gloves, was its message. The war has come home.
This cool war raged until 1966, when the surgeon general's caution was branded to all packs by law. By then a shooting war was underway in Asia. It is ironic that the talisman of life would be stamped with death for this particular conflict. No Eastern caravans-bedecked package art -- this war was disconcerting. The new generation was smoking marijuana as well as tobacco; there was concern it might switch altogether.
Tareyton bragged, "Us Tareyton Smokers Would Rather Right Than Switch," and that is as close to pugilism as advertisements got during Vietnam.
At the height of the war, in 1971, cigarette ads were banned from television, throwing pack design into added flux. Compensation was needed, and designers leaned more heavily on color to make up for its loss in TV ads. A stripe style evolved, suggestive of a rolling screen, but subtly evocative of war. Stripes were heraldic; they were military. But they also were modern, "arty," like the era.
In 1969, philip Morris had introduced Virginia Slims, a 100-millimeter-long cigarette with a package emphasizing the product's length, and spitting sophistication. The pack was conceived by Walter Landor, the San Franciscan who designed the Marlboro pack and who would design packs for Benson & Hedges Lights, Saratoga, Merit and Parliament, not to mention the can for Miller Lite beer.
The Virginia Slims pack was straight from contemporary art, strikingly similar to the stripe paintings of Washington-school colorist Kenneth Noland.
Noland was famous for his circular, target paintings as well -- the Miller Lite logo resembled a Noland bull's-eye. So did the Vantage pack. But stripes caught on. The industry took Landor's lead, and today hardly a brand exists without a striped pack in its arsenal.
The corporate interest in art mirrored that of the new generation's: the most highly educated in America's history, and potentially the most urbane. The new generation could look at the "DF" on Decade's pack and sense that it came from pop art, possibly the paintings of Robert Indiana. As in postwar periods of the past, middle-class Americans looked toward art, and urbanity, to cloud memories of the battlefield.
Cigarette packs were nothing if not urbane. The stripes of a Slims package were Mies van der Rohe's skyscrapers, or streaming tail lights viewed from stop the World Trade Center. As were Salem's stripes, Cambridge's, Kent's, Golden Lights', Merit's and More's.
The packs were as streamlined as the Bauhaus from which they'd sprung. And they were international, hinting subconsciously of glorious conflicts to come.
Philip Morris manufactures Player's Navy Cut, the English smoke with its Hero sailor, registered as a trademark during the 1890s. It is the first military figure to appear on an American pack since World War I. Player's are as sentimentally received as the packs of Home Run, Picayune (Pride of New Orleans), Piedmont, and Rameses (The Egyptian Smoke), still available in speciality shops across America. They hearken to a simpler era, when the romance of pack design was not blotched by the reality of a surgeon general's alarm. But in an age when smoking increases despite a flat warning of cancer or heart disease, the consumer might look to subtleties.
The cigarette industry is a $19 billion concern, with no budget for accidents in package design. In an age of exasperated patriotism, the smoker might recall his cigarette's allegiance to combat, and think twice before lighting the next fuse.