Michael C. Weisenburg, University of South Carolina
What does Ralph Waldo Emerson have in common with the Malboro Man and Joe Camel? All three were used to hawk tobacco products. Long before Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds created fictional characters to help brand their cigarette lines, the Warren Cigar Company, Frank P. Lewis Cigar Co., and the Deisel-Wemmer-Gilbert Corporation co-opted Emerson’s name and likeness to promote several cigar lines. While this may seem surprising at first, it’s not entirely unexpected from either a biographical or a consumer perspective, and if we pause to consider the class and gendered connotations that the role of the celebrity intellectual played in advertising during the nineteenth and twentieth century, we find that of all possible commodities cigars might well be the most fitting of consumables to associate with the Sage of Concord.
The use of Emerson as an advertising ploy was a testament to his enduring popularity that helps us understand how early twentieth-century consumers regarded his legacy and stature in American culture. As Jillmarie Murphy has pointed out, “since his death on April 27, 1882, Emersoniana has been rooted in the American psyche and invoked to sell everything from coffee and tea to greeting cards, collectible figurines, cigar boxes, United States postal stamps, and more” (283). Given their associations with masculine idleness and leisure, we might consider the cigar as an ephemeral conduit toward transcendental meditation, and who better to sell that idea than the father of American Transcendentalism himself?
The connection between Emerson the transcendentalist and Emerson the cigar brand is reinforced by the convenient biographical fact that Emerson the historical personage smoked cigars. His son, Edward Waldo Emerson, recounts that Emerson “had learned to smoke in college and resumed the habit in very moderate degree when he was about fifty years old,” when he would “occasionally” smoke “a small fraction of a cigar with much comfort” (155). It’s likely that it was Emerson who Thoreau had in mind when he wrote in Walden “I could always tell if visitors had called in my absence, either by the bended twigs or grass, or the print of their shoes…or by the lingering odor of a cigar” (425). And, Emerson’s association with cigars was strong enough for Robert Richardson to comment that “the Emerson house had a white fence out front, on the lower rail of which Emerson used to deposit his half-smoke cigar when he came in” (208). Given Emerson’s well-known predilection for cigars, it becomes less of a stretch to understand why a tobacco company might want to associate their products with him.
Additionally, we find in Emerson’s published writings occasional references to a variety of stimulants, tobacco and cigars included. He writes about the connections between inspiration and stimulating instinct in “The Poet,” and argues that “this is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandal-wood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of animal exhilaration” (W 3:27). It’s enlightening to consider that the tension between leisure and exhilaration, between stimulation and meditation, that cigar smoking affords was something in which Emerson took pleasure.
The use of celebrity in advertising is an attempt to establish an ethos that bolsters prestige and helps to differentiate a product. Just as branding solidifies an identity and works to create a culture of loyalty, the association of a brand with a well-known person further connects the consumer with the traits that generated the celebrity’s fame. The combination of celebrity branding with the social connotations of cigar smoking from the era mutually reinforce an aura of gentile intellectualism. Emerson suggests that cigar smoking can engender a sense of elevated, perhaps inflated, self-respect. In a journal entry from 1859 when he writes, “Even the Collegian shopboy smoking his cigar assumes the attitude & air of rich gentlemen, & is raised in his own eyes” (JMN 14:327). In her analysis of tobacco advertising trends of the 1990s, Judith Falit points out that cigar advertisements are “geared towards older and more affluent adults” and work to “promote cigars as symbols of prestige and success” (240). While Falit studies the latter part of the century, anecdotal historical evidence suggests that her analysis holds for Emerson Cigars as well. The combination of brand with the iconic status of an American intellectual affords the tobacco companies the ability to associate its products with the folksy, aphoristic wisdom of the great American philosopher. In the early twentieth century, Emerson was most frequently read and understood through the lens of out-of-context snippets found in the pages of magazines such as The Atlantic and Forbes. As such, he was predominantly understood as the bourgeois poster-boy of the robber barons, and his name and image were associated with the ideals of middle-class financial success.
In this context, newspaper ads for the Warren Cigar Company extend May Kupiec Cayton’s argument that audiences took from Emerson what they wanted and fashioned his message to fit their own preconceived notions of what his philosophy ought to offer them in terms of practical achievement. Offering a range of sizes and cuts such as “Poet,” “Waldo,” and “Aristocrat,” Warren Cigars were marketed to associate the smoker with the concept of Emerson as a gentleman amateur, someone who contemplates both his power of authority and his personal aesthetics as he casually puffs; yet, the gimmicky prizes given to those who save their Emerson cigar bands betray the company’s interest in gamifying consumption to drive sales.
But the most forceful use of Emerson to sell cigars comes from the Deisel-Wemmer-Gilbert Corporation’s printing of Emerson’s likeness on its packaging. Based on a George Kendall Warren portrait of Emerson taken in the mid-1870s, the version of Emerson presented is not so much the radical young vanguard of the “New School” who wrote Nature, “The Divinity School Address,” or “Self-Reliance” so much as it is that of an established public lecturer and elder statesman of Gilded Age America. It’s a little less Waldo, and a little more Mr. Emerson. His thinning white locks, bushy mutton chops, rosy checks, and rich, black cravat suggest the air of a kind-hearted industrialist, a sunnier Forbes or Vanderbilt, a man of the arts, yes, but also a man of success. As DiFranza, et al. point out, “tobacco products [are] displayed to permit the package to serve as advertising,” and then, as now, the image of cool sophistication is essential to the dual goals of enticing new customers and establishing brand loyalty. Flanked by female figures who resemble Cleo and Euterpe, the muses of history and poetry, the cigar boxes and display lamps proffer Emerson as lord of Parnassus. In contradistinction to such grandeur is the brand’s catchphrase of “Mild & Mellow,” as if to remind the buyer that, while Emerson was a man of great intellect, he was also accessible, cheerful, and a man of moderate pleasures.
In addition to the boxes, some of which would have been displayed open such that Emerson’s visage would have appeared to float over the cigars by an ethereal power, Deisel-Wemmer-Gilbert also distributed display lamps to entice the cigar enthusiast. These box lamps had the same images as the boxes and could be placed in either a window or high behind the counter to draw in patrons or lead them deeper into the store. The electrically illuminated image of Emerson, still something of a novelty in the early twentieth century, would have beckoned to the would-be cigar buyer. What draw would a wizened Waldo flanked by goddesses have for the discerning consumer who was in search of “mild & mellow” nicotine fix? We can imagine someone entering the tobacconist, their eyes being attracted to the golden beacon of light shining forth a subtle smile from a friendly, almost grandfatherly, face. We are reminded of a passage from “Considerations by the Way,” in which Emerson writes, “one comes who can illuminate this dark house with thoughts, show them their native riches, what gifts they have, how indispensable each is, what magical powers over nature and men; what access to poetry, religion and the powers which constitute character” (W 6:271). All of these qualities could belong to our imaginary passerby, he could be a man of character, if he makes the discerning choice to buy an Emerson Cigar.
Cigar smoking, mild vice that it may have been, was for Emerson a pleasure of commodity, something he indulged in to alter and augment his quotidian existence, and as such was a personal consumption, something that he purchased in excess of the materials he needed to run his household at Bush. As he wrote in “Domestic Life,” a person’s house “ought to show us his honest opinion of what makes his well-being when he rests among his kindred, and forgets all affectation, compliance, and even exertion of will. He brings home whatever commodities and ornaments have for years allured his pursuit, and his character must be seen in them” (W 7:111-112). Yet, Emerson the meditative cigar smoker appears as something both apart from Emerson the head of household and different from Emerson the public intellectual. It is this image of elevated, individual commodity consumption that these cigar companies tapped into and leveraged in order to sell the promise of “Mild & Mellow” transcendental experience.
Cayton, Mary Kupiec. “The Making of an American Prophet: Emerson, His Audiences, and the Rise of the Culture Industry in Nineteenth-Century America,” Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Lawrence Buell, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 77-100.
DiFranza, Joseph R., Mardia Coleman, Dorothy St. Cyr, “A Comparison of the Advertising and Accessibility of Cigars, Cigarettes, Chewing Tobacco, and Loose Tobacco.” Preventive Medicine, vol. 29, no. 5, 1999, pp. 321-326. https://doi.org/10.1006/pmed.1999.0553
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–. “Domestic Life,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Society and Solitude [Vol. 7]. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/4957107.0007.001/1:9?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
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Warren Emerson Cigar Newspaper Ad. Warren Sheaf Aug. 11, 1915 https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059228/1915-08-11/ed-1/seq-5/#date1=1777&index=1&rows=20&words=cigar+Cigar+Emerson&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1963&proxtext=%22Emerson+Cigar%22&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1
Warren Emerson Cigar Newspaper Ad. Warren Sheaf, Sept. 8, 1915 https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059228/1915-09-08/ed-1/seq-8/#date1=1777&index=3&rows=20&words=Cigar+Emerson&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1963&proxtext=%22Emerson+Cigar%22&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1
Warren Emerson Cigar Newspaper Ad. The Indianapolis Times, Apr. 23, 1926 https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015313/1926-04-23/ed-1/seq-28/#date1=1777&index=11&rows=20&words=CIGAR+EMERSON&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1963&proxtext=%22Emerson+Cigar%22&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1
Warren, George Kendall. [portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ca. 1870s] https://digital.tcl.sc.edu/digital/collection/myerson/id/1278
Weisenburg, Michael C. [Photos of Cigar Boxes, display lamp, and other realia taken courtesy of the Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Manuscripts, Images, and Ephemera, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries.]
How to cite this post
Michael C. Weisenburg. “‘a cigar had uses’: Emerson as Advertising Icon.” The Transparent Eyeball, Third Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, May 25, 2021, emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/a-cigar-had-uses-emerson-as-advertising-icon/. Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Aug. 2021].
Weisenburg, M. C. (2021, May 25). “a cigar had uses”: Emerson as Advertising Icon. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/a-cigar-had-uses-emerson-as-advertising-icon/.
Weisenburg, Michael. “‘a cigar had uses’: Emerson as Advertising Icon,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, May 25, 2021, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/a-cigar-had-uses-emerson-as-advertising-icon/.