Before cigarettes and chewing tobacco became popular, cigar smoking was a fashionable men’s custom that was enjoyed in many settings: during recreation, business, and as an after-dinner activity. The Black Rose Pamperin cigar box is a classic memento of La Crosse from the turn of the twentieth century. Distinctly marketed towards men, the half-nude, Greek Goddess- inspired woman on the box was an important part of the attraction of the Black Rose cigars. These cigars were even featured on the Pamperin float in the 1898 Fourth of July parade.
The Pamperin Cigar Company, like its predecessor, Pamperin and Wiggenhorn, was one of the largest producers of cigars in La Crosse and employed more than 300 hands at its peak. Marjorie Collins purchased the company from Franklin J. Pamperin, grandson of the founder, in 1974. She recalls him telling her that at one time the company employed 19 salesmen, who were called “drummers.” The drummers would board trains, and fanned out all over the Midwest and the Dakotas, selling Pamperin tobacco products. Pamperin bought and processed tobacco from regional tobacco farms, especially from the Viroqua area, which had a reputation for high quality tobacco.
Eventually, the company sold only chewing tobacco, as the popularity of cigars began to diminish. By the time Collins owned the business, many of their customers were older men who, in their youth, had gotten leaf trimmings from the factory, called schnitzel, (or “bits”) for free, which they would then chew. Pamperin continued to fill orders for these products until the company closed in 1987.
This cigar box is one of the objects that will be featured in the exhibition “[art]ifact, Where History Meets Art,” on display from Feb. 26 through April 17 at The Pump House Regional Art Center. It will be displayed alongside a new piece created by artist Sarah Pederson as a response to the history of the Pamperin Cigar Company. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Public History Program, and the La Crosse County Historical Society.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.