Stone Lithography

snow belle cigar box label

Stone Lithography was invented by Aloys Senfelder in 1798.  Aloys was born in Prague, Germany in 1771.  Though he graduated from college with a distinction as a lawyer, his first love was acting.  Aloys first play "Connoisseur of Girls" was a resounding success and brought him a royalty of 50 Guldens.  His second play unfortunately was never produced due to the printer failing to reproduce his work on time and his royalty was canceled plunging him into debt.  Aloys became obsessed in finding a way to multiply his works independently of professional printers. He decided that the expensive hand-engraved copper plates used by the printers of the day were not efficient.  After much experimentation he achieved better results using a grease-based ink on Bavarian limestone.  He called the new process "Chemical Printing" or "Stone Lithography".

Stone Lithography became the 19th Century's chief means of reproducing works of art in color and illustrating books and magazines.  Though laborious, Stone Lithography could produce thousands of images without the image degradation found in the more popular steel or copper engravings (which lost their image sharpness after only 30-50 print runs).  The first private U.S. concern to sell stone produced prints was Currier & Ives.

litho press
Aloys First Press

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 25 separate stones.  Prang also was the first to add embossing and imitation brush strokes.  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. He called this technique "Crayon Chromolithography".  Most of the labels produced in the 1870's used this method.

strawberry cigar box label
(©1874 - Example of Crayon Chromolithography)

Later stone lithography became 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.

cigar label art stone engraver
(A Stone Engraver Applying Stippling)

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 (1900's dollars) to produce.  Stone lithography's biggest problem was in the use of the stones.  The Bavarian limestones were 3-4 inches thick, ranged in size from 6 x 8" to 44 x 62" in area and weighing up to 600 pounds each.  Unfortunately, the stones were very hard to handle and would break quite easily.

cigar label art limestone
(Bavarian Limestone)

By the 1892 lithographers were 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 22K gold or bronze leaf.  Embossing gave the labels their life like dimensionality.  Gold coins found on most labels now looked like real gold pieces.  Women had real curves, wore ornate jewelry and showcased elaborate coiffures with discernable hair.

bessie green cigar box label
(Wonderful Example of Embossing)

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.

Prior to 1920 over 25,000 cigar makers vied with one another for the eye (and nickel) of our great-grandfathers.  This was a very profitable business before Prohibition put an end to the beer room trade in cigars.  Over 5 billion cigars were sold annually.

cigar label art methods
  (Hand Stippling)(Photo Mechanical)

By the 1920's machined made cigars and the mechanical efficiency and the use of light weight, cheaply produced metal plates in high speed presses, quickly replaced the Bavarian limestones.  It was the end of an era.  Photomechanical lithography had begun to take over the market.  Big cigar manufacturers and the advertising executive became more important than the mom and pop cigar maker.  A catchy phrase and a 4 color label replaced the heavily embossed 15 color works of art.

radio queen cigar box label
(© 1922 Example of 4 Color Printing)

The quality of commercial printing during the "Golden Age of Stone Lithography" between 1870 & 1920 has never been duplicated and probably never will.  Fortunately for us, precious examples of Cigar Label Art are available for our viewing & collecting pleasure.

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