Antique tobacco tins are smoking-hot collectibles

tobacco tin

A rare Continental Cubes tobacco tin sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Patented in 1875, offset lithography quickly became the preferred way to decorate tin products, and the tobacco industry was a pioneer in utilizing the then-revolutionary technology to advertise its wares.

Tobacco tins were used to keep tobacco fresh and extend its shelf life. Once opened, tobacco soon dried out so boxy or cylindrical tins about 6 to 8 inches inches tall were used to store bulk tobacco while smaller pocket tins were good for taking tobacco on-the-go. As the shapes and sizes of tobacco tines were fairly uniform with a few exceptions, companies were adept at making their tins stand out on shelves with colorful decoration and imagery. Most were designed to appeal to male consumers so “masculine” imagery, including sports, the navy and gentlemanly leisure pursuits were frequently used on tobacco tins.

Among the most rare tobacco tins for the Continental Cubes tobacco brand was a four-sided tobacco tin for the American Tobacco Company, which at one time sold about 80% of cigarettes, tobacco and snuff produced in the United States. The tin (example shown at top of page) features lavish decoration with US President George Washington in his military attire reading a map, pictured in a pastoral landscape. Examples in great condition retaining bright colors perform well, such as one that sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Standing 5 inches tall, the tin held eight ounces of Continental Cubes tobacco and had extensive lithographed text all over. One side reads in a large lettering “One Match, One Puff,” and another “Its Mild, Its Good,” and each side had other slogans in smaller typeface. According to Morphy’s, this is the scarcest version of all Continental Cubes tins.

tobacco tin

A set of six Mayo’s Cut Plug roly poly tobacco tins, 1915, took $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Bertoia Auctions. Image courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Notable among the few non-standard shaped tobacco tins made were the figural roly poly tins used by Mayo’s Cut Plug, circa 1915, that could each hold about a pound of Mayo’s plug tobacco. Decorated with six figures having removable heads, including an opera singer (or singing waiter), storekeeper, and a satisfied customer, these tins remain highly collectible today. A set of six tins brought $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Bertoia Auctions.

Baseball and tobacco have often gone hand in hand and player cards, sponsored by tobacco companies, have long been desirable and brought stunning prices. They were even affectionately known as T-cards. It’s little surprise then that star players like Babe Ruth were recruited to market all kinds of products, including plug tobacco. The 1920s and ’30s were arguably the heyday for gentlemen to smoke tobacco from pipes. Ruth was known to be a heavy smoker himself, so he endorsed the Bambino tobacco brand.

tobacco tin

This late-1920s Bambino tobacco tin with a silhouette of Babe Ruth swinging for the fences brought $4,393 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019 at RR Auction. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

A Bambino tobacco tin, featuring a silhouette of Ruth standing in his typical batting stance, is among the most sought after as well as scarce. Bambino’s was never among the biggest of the tobacco brands so its tins are hard to find today and many are in sad shape. A late 1920s example in excellent condition realized $4,393 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019 at RR Auction.

By comparison, European examples of tobacco tins tended to be more pictorial and less advertorial, as evidenced by a root-wood tobacco tin with a faux micromosaic plaque that went out at $4,773 plus the buyer’s premium in a June 2019 sale conducted by Colasanti Casa D’Aste. The self-framed plaque depicts the Lucano Bridge, an ancient stone bridge over Rome’s Aniene River.

tobacco tin

A root-wood tobacco tin with a micromosaic faux plaque on its lid earned $4,773 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Colasanti Casa D’Aste. Image courtesy of Colasanti Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

Cigarettes were sometimes tipped in gold and certain tobacco tins also used gold as a design motif to convey their product’s status, including the Gold Dust brand out of Canada. A Gold Dust pocket tobacco tin, featuring a group of three men panning the Yukon for gold. One of its tins, retaining more than 90% of its original gold finish, sold for $3,659 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018 at Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd.

tobacco tin

Emblazoned with a slogan that boasts its contents are ‘worth [their] weight in gold,’ a Gold Dust pocket tobacco tin took $3,659 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018 at Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. Image courtesy of Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Many collectors are drawn to tobacco tins out of nostalgia or a fascination with early advertising but also as a study in American material culture. Tobacco tins tell a story of what life was like then, what people did and what they valued. Advertising collectibles have long been popular and interest has been steadily growing in recent years. Compact and easy to display, tobacco tins can easily occupy a special place in the home, from the family room to the man cave/she shed.

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