IDAHO HISTORY: Cigar stores, smoking were big part of Idahoans' lives

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANJune 1, 2014 

Samuel Parrott’s Main Street cigar store as it looked in 1907

Samuel Parrott’s Main Street cigar store as it looked in 1907.

PROVIDED BY ARTHUR HART

Boise had at least two cigar factories in the 19th century and several cigar stores. The Statesman reported in February 1894 the formation of a partnership between R.G. Messerly and Charles Milleman to open a tobacco business on Ninth Street between Main and Grove, and noted that Milleman was an experienced cigar maker.

Concern that the use of tobacco in its many forms, whether smoked or chewed, was dangerous to the health of its users, and sometimes proved fatal, began to be expressed in print more and more frequently as the 20th century approached.

The Idaho Daily Statesman ran a story in October 1897 on a Civic and Economic Conference in Battle Creek, Mich., where a Dr. Kress of the local sanitarium read a paper in which he asserted that "both acute and chronic diseases are due to evil habits. People are becoming degenerate," and "the use of tobacco is a national curse."

A July 1900 story told Statesman readers that the price of a package of cigarettes had been "cut square in two. Smokers of tailor-made cigarettes of the cheaper variety will rejoice to know that a cut rate is on. Boise is again going onto a 5-cent basis so far as cigarettes are concerned. One establishment handling the paper smokes has already announced a cut of from 10 to 5 cents a package. This is Sargent & Stone. Other firms carrying cigarettes will have to meet it or lose that part of their trade. Boise is the only place of any size in the United States that has kept cigarettes up to 10 cents, and until two or three years ago the price was only 5 per here." When this was written the wholesale price of cigarettes was only $3.35 per thousand. Obviously, the cost of a package of cigarettes was not a deterrent to anyone smoking them, and in 1900 there were no legal deterrents to keep children from acquiring the habit.

Cigar stores in Boise Valley in the early 20th century could be pretty elegant. When the Bank Cigar Store opened on New Year's Day in 1908, the Statesman called it "palatial" and said it was "one of the finest cigar stores ever opened in the northwest." The business took its name from the Bank of Commerce that had formerly occupied the Main Street space. "A statuette of bronze represents a handsome woman in flowing robes bearing a torch. The torch is a gas cigar lighter. Porcelain air-tight vaults costing $450 are used for keeping the high grade cigars. The electric fixtures, furniture and everything is of the very best."

Though hardly palatial, Hannifin's Cigar Shop at 11th and Main has outlasted them all. It has occupied its present building since 1908.

Today's photograph is of another elegant Boise cigar store: Samuel Parrott's at 807 Main St. The glass showcase displays open cigar boxes and the colorful art that adorned their lids. Cigar box art is prized by collectors, as are cigar bands. Cigar box art usually featured portraits of famous men and beautiful women. (You can dial up examples on the Internet.)

Samuel Parrott, like others, issued metal trade tokens to his customers. His were worth 5 cents in trade. Those of the Bank Cigar Store were worth 12 1/2 cents, also known as a "bit." The Bouquet Cigar Store at 821 Main St. issued zinc and brass tokens worth 25 cents.

The U.S. Surgeon General's warning that "smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy" has appeared by law on every pack of cigarettes since 1965, yet 45 million Americans still smoke.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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