You never know what you’ll find, walking through an antiques market. It’s a thrill that antique aficionados and collectors love, that the perfect, unexpected piece could be just around the corner. That teapot over there, for instance. It might look like a normal teapot… then you lift the lid and out pops an array of cigarettes. It’s the kind of discovery that can prompt the start of a whole new collection.
Bill Towne, author of the article The Secrets of Cigarette Dispensers Revealed in The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, has been an avid antique collector for 25 years, and his latest passion is for cigarette dispensers. The cunningly disguised pieces were born in the Victorian era, when smoking was a distinctly unfashionable vice for women. Since embarking on his collection, Bill has found items disguised as music boxes, champagne bottles, boats with dancing ballerinas, and genies. Prices vary from $5 to $795, depending on when they were made and how detailed they are.
“On many occasions I’ve discovered a piece in a shop that even the shop owner didn’t know was actually designed to dispense tobacco products,” says Towne.
Pipe from Drakesbrook Antiques.
The thrill of the hunt, however, appears to have moved from antique shops and shows, with Towne noticing a decrease in the number of tobacco-related items available there. Instead, the best place to search has become online. “With the click of the mouse, you can view an item, place a bid and hopefully add to your collection,” he says. “There are still a large number of items changing hands on a daily basis.”
Items of tobacciana are considered antiques as well as collectables, making them ideal for enthusiasts of both sectors. “With collectables, we have found people either trying to collect sets of things, or very rare pieces that are of limited editions,” says Bill Fraser of Drakesbrook Antiques and Collectables. “It appears to give them a sense of achievement, and makes them out of the ordinary.”
The satisfaction for collectors comes not only from the sense of achievement from completing a set, but also the possibility of monetary return on the investment.
“Many collectors will tell you how they managed to get their first pieces dirt cheap, whereas today the prices of many popular collectables have gone sky high,” says Fraser. “Their collected pieces are constantly growing in value with time.”
What’s more, there are many different facets of the tobacciana market for collectors to explore.
“You can start with a very small investment in, say, tobacco tins, and go right up to cigarette vending machines,” Fraser explains. “There are smoking devices dating back as far as Christopher Columbus in the UK and Europe, with countless varieties of pipes, cigarette lighters, holders, advertising and more.
“You can have smoking paraphernalia that are antiques, right up to currently manufactured items such as cigarette lighters, but the collecting of the ‘current’ advertising or packaging in Australia is virtually finished thanks to the government plans to phase smoking out, especially in public.”
Barbershop Singer ashtrays from Drakesbrook Antiques.
Cigarette cards are one example of collectables that can be valued up to a few thousand dollars. First produced in the 1870s as ‘stiffeners’ for flimsy cigarette packs, they were originally blank, until (it is believed) an American businessman thought they would be a good means of advertising. Soon every cigarette card had a picture on the back.
By the mid 1880s manufacturers were using the cards to promote brand loyalty, enticing customers to complete sets of the picture series. Allen & Ginter released cigarette card sets featuring kings, queens, actresses, flags, birds, and more, but one of their most famous sets was the 1887 series featuring baseball players, seen today as an all-time classic.
British tobacco manufacturer W.D. & H.O. Wills designed sets that are valued from as little as $2 with the Advertisement: Three Castles (1965) and Advertisement: Wants List (1935), up to more rare and lavish sets such as Cricketers (1896) being valued at $6950, and Animals & Birds in Fancy Costume (1896), valued at $4278.
Even the packets themselves hold value for collectors. “Cigarette packets are mini works of art in their own right, designed by graphic designers of yesteryear who were craftsmen with enormous expertise,” says Barry Russell, the secretary of the Cigarette Packet Collectors Club of Great Britain. As with all other antiques and collectables, he says, it is scarcity and condition that determines their value. “The fact that cigarette packets were designed to be used and thrown away meant relatively few packets were kept.”
“Once tobacco products became socially frowned upon, the sales of most items relating to tobacco have slowly diminished,” says Bill Fraser. But for those who do collect them, he says the items hold nostalgic charm, a reminder of former sociabilities.
“Many of the collectors have been in families or been around people in the past who have always smoked, and can remember the smell of pipe tobacco and cigars, and seek to secure the various different pieces to hold on to the pleasurable past experiences,” says Fraser.
One thing that seems certain is that as the dangers of smoking become more prevalent and tobacco-related items become obsolete, these items can’t help but become highly collectable – and therefore increasingly valuable.
Drakesbrook Antiques and Collectables (08) 9733 1240, drakesbrookantique.com.au.