The functional reason for a cigarette case is to keep the fragile tubes of tobacco within from being crushed. But smoking cigarettes has never been a purely utilitarian pursuit. It has long been associated with style and fashion, which is why cigarette cases quickly became highly decorative personal accessories.
There are two general categories of antique and vintage cigarette cases. The first is the case designed for home use. In the late 19th century, Fabergé made rounded sterling silver cases with delicately worked surfaces and a slender row of tiny rose diamonds on the case’s thumb piece. In the 1920s, Art Deco cigarette boxes were fashioned out of polished panels of sterling, with stepped covers that recalled the shapes of Mayan temples. By the 1940s, home cigarette cases were being produced out of laminated slabs of Bakelite.
The more common type of case, and the one that probably comes to mind first when we think of cigarette cases, was the slim rectangle or square designed to fit in a jacket pocket or a small purse. In the late Victorian era, these cases were often paired with matching vesta cases, which were used to hold friction matches known as vestas. One of the unique attributes of a vesta case was a rough or ribbed area, often at the bottom of the case, so the vesta could be struck.
Silver was one of the most common materials used to make antique and vintage cigarette cases. Designers and jewelers would emboss and chase their cases to create everything from delicate floral or geometric patterns to bold designs, such as a coat of arms. The interiors of better cases were gilded, sometimes bearing a tender or congratulatory inscription. The surfaces of other cases were hammered, to give them an Arts and Crafts look. There were also silver cases whose flat surfaces were interrupted and punctuated by inlaid bands of gold.
After World War I, when cigarette smoking was extremely popular and chic, Paris became a center for cigarette-case design. One Parisian designer from the 1920s, Raymond Templier, created lacquered cases as well as silver-and-enamel cases, both sporting brightly colored geometric designs. Other Art Deco designers produced enamel cases with bold, graphic imagery—cases from this era featuring aircraft and animals are much prized by collectors today.
For well-to-do smokers, French jewelers such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels made cases that were encrusted with diamonds and other precious gemstones. But not all silver and enameled cigarette cases were so high-end, which makes cigarette cases good items for beginning silver collectors since they are smaller and less expensive to acquire than, say, a heavy, intensively worked candelabra.
At the other end of the cigarette-case spectrum were the tin cases manufactured in the 1920s and ’30s by tobacco companies. The most sought-after of these are the flat-fifties ca...
Lucky Strikes may have been the king of the flat-fifties cases. They produced cases for year-round use, as well as festive Christmas versions. In the early 1930s, they also sold a series of tins that were packed with one of 50 cards describing a bridge hand. Playing instructions written by a noted bridge expert of the day named Milton Work could be found on one side of the card, while the other featured endorsements from such trusted celebrities as Miss America and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.