Interview: Tony Hyman, National Cigar Museum
by David "Doc" Diaz
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
To say that Tony Hyman is a cigar historian and cigar box collector of the first order would be an understatement. For 55 years, Tony has purchased, sold, traded, photographed and catalogued around 100,000 cigars boxes from every period in cigar history and from many different countries. He has collected cigar accoutrements, memorabilia and historical documents and is one of America’s foremost authorities on cigar history pre-1960.
I have known Tony for about a year now and I have visited his National Cigar Museum various times. The first time I went to see his cigar box collection, we spent about 3 hours looking over marvelous examples of ancient cigar boxes and I learned so much about the history of cigars through these boxes. And yet, we didn’t even scratch the surface of Tony’s magnificent collection.
I have had the opportunity and pleasure of helping Tony to share his treasures from the National Cigar Museum, virtually, via the Web. I have played a small role, a cheerleader really, in setting Tony on the path to using a simple software application to share his knowledge with the world. You will be amazed at the sheer magnitude of information and photos on the National Cigar Museum site at www.cigarhistory.info
Tony kindly accepted my invitation to share some of the details of his life and life’s work with the readers of Stogie Fresh. I think you will enjoy getting to know Tony better and to better understand what you will find when you visit the online National Cigar Museum.
DOC: How and when did you get started in collecting cigars boxes and studying cigar history?
TONY: At age 12, I had collected stamps for a few years because my dad collected them, but in those days the best stamp collections belonged to FDR, the Shah of Iran and the Queen of England. I was poor, but not stupid, and realized that I wasn't in their league and would never have a world-class collection of something that was so expensive and competitive.
One day I went to the local pool hall, the two drug stores, and our town's half a dozen liquor stores to get empty cigar boxes to store childhood treasures in. I got a RED DOT, ROI TAN, KING EDWARD, JOHN RUSKIN, SANTA FE, DUTCH MASTERS, CUESTA REY and a few others. When I got home, I looked at them closely and discovered some were made in New York, some in Pennsylvania, some in Florida, and some in California. I had three SANTA FE and they were all different shapes. Boxes were free and interesting. I actively began seeing how many different ones I could find.
I had been a library rat since age six, and a naturally curious kid so when I first started collecting I also began researching them. I soon learned there was NOTHING written about boxes or the people who used them. I searched libraries, second hand book dealers, and antique shops looking for scraps of information. The difficulty of research turned me on, because every time I learned something, it was something new...and often surprising. I found my first Trade Directory, a 1951-52 edition, and laboriously typed letters to all the cigar companies asking for information about their company and begging boxes.
The week I turned 17, I enlisted in the Navy, the proud owner of 2,300 different cigar boxes and a small but growing library of government documents, magazine articles and miscellaneous paper. I have more than ten times that many items today, mostly paper ephemera.
DOC: With such a huge collection, how do you decide what kinds of boxes you will acquire?
TONY: There are many different slants box collecting can take. I'd estimate there are at least 50 or more sub categories. I specialize in salesmen's samples, vanity labels, Christmas boxes, health claims, guarantees, offers, boxes made in California, Cuban boxes, labels and boxes from before 1870, game boxes, boxes created for special events, boxes with jokes and puns, and a few other categories. I love anything odd or unusual. Some favorites include the box that had a 1904 phone directory for a label, the self lighting cigar, the box that had a singer's 1912 city tour for a label...that's what I mean by unusual. After 55 years collecting I'm still aggressively buying, mostly items that will help me tell the story of cigars on my website.
I don't just buy boxes. I buy photos, letters, company records, catalogs of all types, scrapbooks, trade journals, old newspapers, trade cards, post cards, 19th century prints...anything that gives me information.
What I like more than anything are Tobacco Trade Directories from before 1950. The information they contain is fabulous treasure to a historian such as me. I want to hear from anyone who has one, any year, any condition.
DOC: What have been some of your greatest and most cherished acquisitions?
TONY: In addition to the above-mentioned odd boxes, I own the personal boxes owned by three Cuban Presidents (made by Hoyo, Punch and H.Upmann). I have one box transported cross-country on horseback in 1889 obtained from the land surveyor who carried them. I really like one box I bought on an “Ebay Buy it Now” for $94, just fifteen minutes after it was listed. I'd have bid $1,200 for it. It is from 1865, has two of the rare black Lincoln death stamps, and depicts the USS Monitor, the Navy's first ironclad lost at sea a scant three years previously. There are a few more common boxes I treasure because my father gave them to me when I first began collecting.
I play a little head game, "What if I could only keep 50 boxes?" It's hopeless. I can't reduce my favorites to 100! Look at the Novelty exhibits in the Museum and tell me which of the game boxes, for example, you'd get rid of. Your readers will grow to sympathize with that dilemma as I continue to post thousands of interesting boxes over the next five years or so.
Other than boxes, I treasure every book, article, print, photo, catalog or scrap of paper that lets me better tell the story of these wonderful industries (box making, cigar making, printing, wholesaling, retailing).
There is no more interesting hobby on the planet if you like surprises. Even after 55 years of serious collecting, it's fair to say that every day I see a box I've never seen before, and every week I learn something new about one of those industries.
Cigar boxes are beautiful and historically important. Both the cigar industry and the Cigar Maker's Union were far more important than folks today realize. Nearly every advertising theme and gimmick used today was first used by the cigar industry more than a century ago. The Cigar Maker's Union was one of the most progressive and pioneered labor and social reforms we all take for granted today. I think readers with an historic or artistic bent who follow the Museum's site for the next few years are in for some real treats.
DOC: As a premiere cigar box collector and historian, you must have plenty of work as a consultant. What kinds of consulting have you done?
TONY: I get a lot of questions from theatrical producers, Civil War re-enactment fans, and from movie prop departments. My two favorite movies I supplied things for were Wolfen and the Green Mile. King-Hitzig producers of the former were particularly nice to deal with. They called me at 6 a.m. one morning, desperately needing a box picturing an Indian for the next day's shoot.
"Do you want a standing Indian or an Indian on horseback? Do you want a male or female? What decade do you want it from? Do you want a mint condition box or one that's been around the block a few times?"
"You mean we have a CHOICE," the prop girl practically shrieked, "I've been looking for two months and am willing to take ANYTHING."
Our puddle-jumper county airport offered a 630 a.m. flight to New York City where they were shooting. The next morning I handed the pilot a cardboard box holding a selection of boxes from which she would pick.
At noon I got a call from their prop girl explaining they had picked the perfect box but it was so beautiful and in such fine condition they didn't want their actors to handle it. As a result they photographed it inside and out and had their prop department make a duplicate for the movie. They paid me $130 1980 dollars for the one day loan, returned my boxes express and ultimately cut the scene involving the box from an otherwise excellent movie.
The worst movie person I didn't work with was a prop girl on The Quick and the Dead. She wanted me to vet about a dozen pipes, cigars and other items for their historic accuracy and to supply her with a lighter with just the right click to permit star Gene Hackman to use it to bluff a rival gunslinger into believing he had a hidden pistol. I was astonished when she informed me I was to do that for free...giving her the title of cheapskate of cheapskates and ending our relationship. When they released the movie, Gene clicked a standard out-of-period match safe...very lame and unconvincing. If she hadn't been so cheap I would have gotten them a gun shaped lighter from the correct period. No wonder the movie was a dog.
I supplied all the period full and half full boxes of cigars for the Dr. Pepper Museum and worked extensively with the Museum of Civilization in Quebec. They named their quite nice cigar box collection after me.
Sometimes the projects are very small. The curator of an historic Rancho Reconstruction-Museum in Southern California called to find out what 1880 box of cigars they might have had in the parlor. I supplied one and additionally suggested they nail an 1870's box lid with a girlie label to the wall in the ranch's blacksmith shop as a pin-up. They did.
It's really smart of movie and TV prop departments to ask about cigars, cutters, holders or boxes when doing any period production. Most people today are familiar only with large modern broomstick cigars whereas almost all cigars sold before 1910 were what today are called figurados, or shaped cigars, bulbous, tapered, pointed...and decidedly small, generally running from 4 to 5 inches, rarely more. It cracks me up every time I see modern 21st century cigars in a Western or other movie set in the 19th century.
DOC: What other cigar personalities have you met during the course of your career and, can you share any interesting or funny stories about them?
TONY: My first brush with celebrity came as a result of my letters-to-cigar companies back in the 1950's. A fellow collector suggested we write to cigar smoking celebrities as well and wrote a letter than 14 year olds thought was funny to about a half dozen of them. Groucho Marx was the only one who responded. But, on his stationery, he scolded us for being snotty and sarcastic, and he pointed out that he wouldn't sign it so we wouldn't get an autograph from him.
In the late 70's Ernesto Perez-Carrillo allowed me to photograph the process of making cigars at EL CREDITO in Miami and turned me into a fan of their Panatela shaped smoke which I used to order by mail. Someday I'll post the pictures I took on my www.CigarHistory.info Museum website.
Below: Tony wearing a coat made completely from cigar box ribbons
The most informative cigar man I ever met was A.J. "Jerry" Golden. In the late 70's as part of research for my first cigar box book (Handbook of Cigar Boxes, Arnot Art Museum, 1979), my wife and I drove from New York to Florida, interviewing box makers, cigar makers and other industry people. After two weeks on the road we were on our way home, and exhausted. Friday afternoon we arrived in Reading, PA, about five hours from home with one more interview scheduled. We sat in our car in heavy pouring rain, staring at an upstairs lit window in an otherwise dark building, debating whether to blow off the interview and speed home. We honored our commitment and entered the world of cigar brokering in the small second floor office belonging to Jerry Golden, son of the company founder and long time creator of cigar brands. For the next three hours he regaled, entertained and informed us while handing me box after box of cigars that had been returned from customers. My most striking memory of Golden the person, other than his generosity, was his incessant smoking, often of thirty year old cigars so worm-hole ridden he looked like he was fingering a piccolo as he smoked. I will be eternally grateful for his insightful sharing of four decades of experience creating and selling cigars...almost all by telephone.
I worked for a few years with Steve Saka, the first cigar industry person to realize the significance of the National Cigar Museum. I have a new association with Lew Rothman whom I have always liked and respected as a businessman and collector. Lew loves my National Cigar Museum and has become a major sponsor. I've encouraged Lew to get his extensive collection of modern boxes photographed so I can do a feature on it. Look for some interesting cigar related offshoots involving Lew, Altadis and me in the future.
DOC: The National Cigar Museum web site is a truly great resource for all of us interested in cigar history. What prompted you to put such a massive resource online for the entire world to learn from and enjoy?
TONY: Thirty-eight years ago, my then new wife promised that retirement meant I could write my cigar history book. When that lucky day arrived I began outlining "the cigar industry story" and discovered that since that pledge the collection has become so big that one book would no longer suffice! I ended up designing four expensive art books only a handful of people could afford. Previous experience in writing and publishing nearly 30 books told me these giant books would cost more to produce than they'd make in sales. Since I wasn't going to make money, I decided both my readers and I would be better served if I gave away the information for free.
The Internet has become the perfect publishing venue. The web has allowed me to write and post what I thought were the most useful exhibits first, without having to wait to publish an entire book. So far, I've posted a basic description and history of each type of cigar box, and the most detailed information available elsewhere on how to date them. I've posted the most extensive bibliography on cigars found anywhere (bigger even than that of the Arents collection at the NYPL). I've completed a glossary of box and cigar terms.
Now that the basics are posted, there is no press, no deadlines, no arbitrary completion dates to worry about. I decide what and when I want to write. So I selected exhibits I thought were fun, like stolen brands, bad brands, child smokers, and the like. Web publishing suits me too because I'm still collecting so I can easily make changes or additions when I find new data. It also allows me to put up partial data when it suits me. Whatever is written becomes the complete work. And displaying everything in the National Cigar Museum website is so cost effective I don't worry about making money.
I planned 300 basic chapters (exhibits/topics/lessons/pages) of which 119 are completed and 114 posted. I'm writing new exhibits constantly, but the site is already so big, with more than 1700 photos, it takes nearly two hours to upload so I update only every three months.
I encourage all your readers to visit www.CigarHistory.info and to pass along any comments, corrections or additions. I'd love to hear from readers who own any high quality cigar-related collection, such as meerschaum, cutters, Indians, signs, foreign boxes, because, in the interests of scholarship and entertainment I'm happy to share the spotlight and post or link with other historian-collectors.
About the Author
David "Doc" Diaz is the publisher and the editor of the Stogie Fresh Cigar Publications. He has served as an educator, researcher and writer and has taught in the Health Education and Health Science field for over 30 years. He possesses an earned doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. Doc is a Certified Master Tobacconist (CMT), having received this certification from the Tobacconist University and is a member and Ambassador of Cigar Rights of America (CRA).blog comments powered by Disqus