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THREE BOXES AND THE OLDEST CUBAN CIGAR BRAND

THREE BOXES AND THE OLDEST CUBAN CIGAR BRAND
Cabañas was born in the century of Handel and Hogarth, which is quite remarkable considering we view brands like Por Larrañaga (1834) and Punch (1840) as pioneers in the Cuban cigar industry. Cabañas predates these by decades. Officially registered in 1810, Francisco Cabañas actually launched his eponymous brand in 1797, despite the Spanish crown’s prohibition of commercial cigar production at the time. It is generally accepted as the first registered brand of Havanas. In 1848, the Cabañas and Carbajal families re-registered the brand as Hija de Cabañas y Carbajal y Cia.
 
Several months ago, I purchased an old cigar box at an auction in Spain. It is a companion piece to the two glass H de Cabañas y Carbajal boxes that sit in the James J Fox Museum in London. The Fox pieces – made for the 1851 Great Exhibition – still carry the original cigars, which are said to be the oldest in existence. My mid-nineteenth century survivor joins two other historical H de Cabañas y Carbajal boxes that I have. The first is Napoleon III’s personal cigar box, which contains a handwritten note from the long-forgotten smoker who came across it at the Emperor’s estate sale in 1873. The second, similar in style to the Napoleon box, displays the beautifully detailed Great Shield of the Crown of Spain to the interior. Sitting side by side, it occurred to me that these three boxes form the perfect framework on which to sail the currents and eddies of the 19th century Cuban cigar world and look specifically at the history of Cuba’s oldest cigar brand.
 
There is an October 1904 ad in Harper’s Magazine that celebrates the pedigree of Cabañas: 
 
It has taken more than 100 years to bring the Cabañas brand to its present perfection, and the fact that it is to-day the most aggressively imitated brand in Havana is the strongest evidence of its established, continued and present excellence. 
 
That is not hyperbole. The Cabañas brand, although relatively unknown today, was a giant throughout the 19th century. It was a purveyor to the Spanish crown before Spain lifted its monopoly on Cuban tobacco in 1817 and is widely seen as the first producer to introduce the Havana ‘segar’ to England at around this time. 
 
In 1851, H de Cabañas y Carbajal won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition. Britannia was at the zenith of her power and this medal showed that the most powerful nation on earth smoked Cabañas Havana cigars. My box and the James J Fox piece are identical, save for the Chinoiserie – reverse-painted Mandarin figures – that grace the two side panels on my version. Both are trade displays, rather than production boxes, and one can imagine them sitting proudly on a table at Crystal Palace, as a sea of top hats and chemisettes drifted by. As a footnote, the Spanish seller of the box did not package it well and the box arrived with one glass pane rattling around inside. Save for a piece of scrunched-up newspaper, thrown in as an afterthought, that 165 year old hand-painted pane of glass would have been broken beyond repair. 
 
In 1848, Jaime Partagás decided he would take advantage of Cabañas hard-won international fame. In that year, he applied for and was granted the brand registration Flor de Cabañas – the inference being that the cigars were rolled in the Cabañas factory. Beneath this misleading representation, he printed, in tiny letters: de Partagás y Compañia. This branding was applied to cigars that Partagás exported to England and it soon caught the attention of González Carbajal, who immediately launched a lawsuit. In December 1854, Partagás was forced to drop the registration and soon after created his now famous brand Flor de Tabacos de Partagás y Compañia
 
The Napoleon III box is a fascinating piece. After defeat at the Battle Of Sedan in 1870, the Emperor went into exile in England, purchasing his cigars – among them, almost certainly, H de Cabañas y Carbajal – from Robert Lewis in St James’s. He died in 1873 and is buried in Farnborough. It’s an interesting box, not just because of its original owner, but also because it contains a handwritten note from the person who bought it at Napoleon’s estate sale. That cigar smoker, long gone from this earth, worked out that – calculated at a rate of £21 per 100 cigars – each Havana had cost him 4/3d. And the cigar name stencilled on the side of the box? Fittingly, they’re called Napoleones.  
 
The final box – the armorial box – is similar to Napoleon III’s. It has fared much better over the years and is pristine in its lacquer. The gold stencilling is strong and has taken on a rich russet hue in the corners. Whereas the Emperor’s box contained Napoleones, this one housed Emperadores. Both carry, to the interior of the lid, the animal-filled Great Shield of the Crown of Spain. 50 years after Cabañas started officially supplying cigars to the Spanish crown, it was still held in the highest regard around the world. 
 
The company went through a series of name changes and ownership over the years that followed, becoming Leopoldo Carvajal y Cia in 1879, before being bought by the American Tobacco Company in 1902. As with every Cuban cigar brand, Cabañas was nationalised after the Revolution and then discontinued in 1962 – probably due to the US embargo of that year. It was reinstated in 1989 as a producer of inexpensive, machine-made cigars – a sad swan song for one of the great brands of the 19th century – and discontinued again in 2005.  (scroll down for images)

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