Cigar Tip Cutters and Lighters of the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

Cigar Tip Cutters and Lighters of the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

By Michael Eckles

Preparing to smoke a fine cigar can be a long and luxurious process that involves a series of steps and accessories to ensure it will smoke as intended. Two of the most important tools for the cigar aficionado, and for today’s collector, are the cigar cutter and lighter.

From the end of the Civil War until the explosive popularity of the cigarette in the early twentieth century, the cigar was king. Early on tobacco and cigars were sold in saloons out of a counter top showcase next to the bar. Over time, tobacco and cigars became so popular that Cigar Stores and Tobacconists started popping up everywhere on their own.

On the counter was typically a pair of scissors and some matches until some clever inventor came up with the idea to develop a wood box with a round opening to put the cigar tip in and a knife blade on the inside that was pulled down by a lever on the outside to cut off the tip. Then some marketing entrepreneur thought it would be a good idea to put a metal frame on the front side of the box that would hold a cigar box label. This provided a great visual advertisement for that cigar, and “Point of Purchase” advertising took on a whole new look, especially with the introduction of color lithography in the second half of the 19th century. This could not have been done with a pair of scissors.

As with everything else, there is always someone who thinks they can build a better mouse trap. The Brunhoff Manufacturing Company, founded in 1890 in Cincinnati, Ohio, was a full service sign manufacturing company making Point-of-Purchase (POP) advertising items, including POP items for tobacco companies. They were approached with a request to come up with a POP advertising item that doubled as a Cigar Tip Cutter. It didn’t take them long to figure out how to create a cast iron base that would not only hold a cigar tip cutter but a frame as well to hold a cigar box label. Within these tip cutters was a clockwork mechanism that would wind up and activate as soon as you put the tip of the cigar in the hole. As time progressed they began making a mold that had the cigar advertisement embossed on the iron itself, therefore eliminating the need for a paper label that would somehow find a way to get soiled over time. On a side note, the company branched out to also make change trays, ashtrays, and paperweights.

As cigars continued to grow in popularity, tip cutters became more ornate and personal in design. There are three basic types of cigar cutters: pocket clippers or punchers, tabletop cutters, and scissors-style cutters. Over the years they’ve been made in every imaginable shape, ranging from small vest pocket models—either scissor-like or figural—to ingenious mechanical contraptions that sat on the counter at the local tobacconist or on the bar of a saloon. In between are beautifully sculpted Vienna bronze and wooden desk models. In many cases the cutters are combined with lighters to offer the smoker full-service convenience in one tool.

Now, what to do about those unsightly and smelly matches?! Someone decided to use a small kerosene lamp and take the chimney off and replace it with a shorter open top globe. This was a great idea but it left little room for cigar companies to also use it as a marketing opportunity. The Brunhoff Company took no time in making a cast iron base that held a sign for the advertisement just above the base and then the kerosene reservoir with a globe on the top of the sign.

After a couple of saloons burnt down from a tipped over cigar lighter, it was once again time to build a better mouse trap; an electrical mechanism that ran off of a dry cell battery and when pulled forward, created a spark that ignited a flame. Of course they had a frame, sometimes on all four sides of the wood box, to hold a sign or cigar label. The lighters ranged from alcohol dips to electric devices run with batteries. They are sometimes cast as stunning figures or are elegantly formed lamps, using blown glass for reservoirs and glass globes or pierced tin globes.

At the turn of the century, it was not unusual to also see coin operated gambling machines and trade stimulators throughout saloons. Many of the trade stimulators were chance games that would allow a person who was willing to put a penny in a chance to win a cigar. By the way, if you ever wondered where the popular saying “Close But No Cigar” came from, now you know. Someone then decided to combine a cigar tip cutter with a wheel of fortune-type mechanism that when a cigar was placed in the hole, it tripped the mechanism and the wheel began to spin. If the wheel stopped on the win portion of the wheel, the player got a free cigar. There are only three of these spectacular machines that have survived to my knowledge. Showtime Auctions sold one at auction in 2007 for $60,000. A far cry from what it cost to produce over 100 years ago.

Next came the production of the Cigar Tip Cutter and Cigar Lighter combination. These were beautiful nickel plated cast iron and nickel plated brass fixtures that almost took on a look of a piece of fine art. These were more often than not seen on the bars of high-end saloons in big cities like New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, and San Francisco.

Should someone wish to begin collecting cigar tip cutters today, there are a lot available to purchase at every entry level. You can find a vest pocket cutter for as little as $25.00 to a trade stimulator model for $60,000.

I will end by giving collectors two very valuable pieces of advice:

  • When hunting for treasures to start a collection or add to your collection keep in mind that Condition is, by far the most important factor in collecting antiques of any kind. If you would not be proud to display it in your home and show it off to your friends, don’t buy it.
  • Never stick your little finger in a mechanical cigar tip cutter.


Michael Eckles is co-owner with his wife, Lori, of Showtime Auction Services located in Woodhaven, MI. Showtime Auctions conducts two auctions a year specializing in investment grade antiques. For more information and to view items available in their upcoming September 29-October 1 auction, visit showtimeactions.com, or email Mike@showtimeauctions.com.

Cigar Tip Cutters and Lighters of the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century