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"Once upon a time, everybody smoked cigarettes," Peter Ashley begins the introduction of The Cigarette Papers, recalling his youth when smoking was not yet a subversive activity, when government legislature did not yet dictate the size and detail of health warning labels, and when cigarette packets were still art.
In his eulogy for the cigarette packet The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln Limited), Peter Ashley shares his personal collection and fascination with vintage cigarette packets. Through meticulous photography, anecdotes, and selected pieces from pulp fiction and literature, Ashley weaves a loose narrative through the vanished world of cigarette art.
In the days of Ian Flemming, Len Deighton, and Graham Greene, spies did not smoke cigarettes, they smoked Senior Service, Player's Navy Cut, and Gauloises. Barflies smoked Capstan Full Strength. Railroad workers smoked Wild Woodbine. David Bowie and John Lennon smoked Gitanes. Brand loyalty was easier to maintain when a cigarette's name carried more than taste and aroma, it had an iconic image, uniquely personal and intimate. Hitler was so devoted to the feline on the wrapper of his Black Cats that he staked the Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden, London as the future site of his Third Reich headquarters.
Paper cigarette cards were once collector's items, containing everything from first aid techniques, gardening hints, air raid precautions, and cricket score cards. Now these plastic inserts are just another health warning, and the first thing to be thrown away after unwrapping a new pack. Original cigarette cards are valuable relics today, the world record price of a single card is £1,200,000.
It's hard to imagine the world Ashley depicts as real, it can be seen now only in period movies and television. Today, If you'd like to see a cigarette packet that isn’t obscured by graphic images of mouth caner or clogged brain arteries covering 75% of the front and back (according to official Canadian Tobacco Products Labeling Regulations) you'd have to take a trip down to America. The point of this new branding is, of course, to discourage smoking, especially from children. Ashley states that there is no proof a lack of package artistry leads to less smokers in the world, but he doesn't expect cigarette censorship to slow down any time soon.
Ashley's book is a beautiful reminiscence on a form of art now hanging by a thread. Whether you're a smoker or not, he invites you to take one last look at the tobacconist's canvas, before it disappears entirely.