Where there’s smoke
For decades, that was the slogan of Chesterfield Cigarettes, a brand of smokes that counted Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck and dozens of other celebrities as spokespeople. They were hawked by big band leaders like Glenn Miller during “The Chesterfield Hour” and other radio programs. They were even James Bond’s cigarette of choice in Ian Fleming’s spy novel “Goldfinger.”
Chesterfields were one of the biggest names in cigarettes. And, according to legend, they are named for Chesterfield County.
“They were obviously among the best-known American brands, as much as Starbucks or something like that,” says Garland Pollard, editor of branding website Brandland USA.
To understand the impact of Chesterfield Cigarettes, you have to go back to a time before the government cracked down on the industry, before surgeon general warnings on packages and TV advertisements were banned. You have to go back to a time when tobacco spent more advertising dollars than any other industry. Chesterfield
According to Pollard, Chesterfields were first registered for commercial use by the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company in 1896. Anecdotally, the brand is named after the county, but concrete details seem hazy. As Richmond Gems and Richmond Straight Cuts were two popular early cigarette brands, Pollard says it makes sense that a cigarette would be named for the tobacco-growing county just outside of the state capital.
“That would be very logical,” says Pollard, a Virginia native who now lives in Bradenton, Florida. “I don’t think it would be a stretch that they were named after the county. Richmond was associated with cigarettes like cigars were with Cuba.”
The brand underwent a revamping in 1915, during which it received its distinctive packaging – a white paper-and-foil cup with “Chesterfield” printed in gold lettering. As Chesterfields were a blend of Turkish and Virginia tobacco, the packaging featured a Hagia Sophia-like image with a crown, and lettering the evoked Virginia’s colonial roots.
According to industry tracker Advertising Age, in the cigarette market, “Chesterfield was a strong second behind Camel in 1925, with 25 percent of the market.” Up until the 1960s, Pollard says Chesterfield was bigger than anything Philip Morris produced.
“It was one of the major brands,” says Rick Pollay, professor emeritus of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia, of Chesterfields. “They did that primarily by relying on an incredibly long list of movie stars.”
Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire were just a few of the celebrities who appeared in ads for Chesterfield Cigarettes (see the sidebar for a more expansive list). They also had ads showing young promising starlets in an effort to attract young smokers.
“The future of the industry has long been recognized as lying in their ability to attract the young,” Pollay says. “Because of the addictive nature of nicotine, if you start people smoking, the majority will continue to be smokers for many, many years. There’s an old saying that the secret to success in Marlboro Country is to corral ’em while they’re young and brand ’em while they’re young.”
For Chesterfield Cigarettes, part of this effort included using sports celebrities like Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and Willie Mays. Chesterfields were “the baseball man’s cigarette” and sponsored high school football programs in the 1940s to get teenagers interested in cigarettes. There was even a television commercial targeting kids that had Eddie Fisher showing how to use a cigarette vending machine.
“It’s not like they were singularly pernicious – almost all of the firms were doing similar things,” Pollay says. “They all wanted a youthful market.”
The brand also sponsored radio and TV shows, though there were a couple of times where an entertainer would have a coughing fit on live air. One such incident happened while entertainer Arthur Godfrey was live. The burly, deepvoiced entertainer did testimonials that he smoked two to three packs of Chesterfields a day and came up with their slogan “Buy ’em by the carton.” Godfrey was so popular in his heyday that when he underwent an operation to remove a cancerous lung in 1959, it was front-page news. He would die from emphysema and pneumonia, thought to be caused by decades of smoking and treatment for lung cancer.
“It’s hard for today’s people to imagine just how prevalent cigarette advertising was,” Pollay says. “They were the heaviest advertisers by far in virtually all media. They were the pioneers in radio, heavily in radio. They were pioneers on television. In the 1960s, if you watched television, you would have seen literally thousands of cigarette ads in any given year.”
Chesterfields were also pioneers in making larger cigarettes, unveiling their “king size” in the 1950s. Compared to a regular cigarette size of 70 mm, king-size cigarettes are 84 mm. Today, there are also 100 and 120 mm sizes.
On Jan. 11, 1964, the landmark surgeon general’s report on smoking and health came out, revealing how cancerous smoking was. Companies began unrolling new products with filters, saying they were safer. Dozens of new brands were launched and relaunched, and the emphasis shifted toward younger, fresher brands like Winston, Marlboro and Virginia Slims. Older brands like Lucky Strike, Old Gold and Chesterfield began to fade away.
“Gradually over time, [companies] walked away from their traditional products to get behind their new and improved products,” Pollay says.
The popularity of Chesterfields slowly waned over time, but they still made appearances in pop culture. The brand is either referenced or smoked in the films “The Blues Brothers,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “True Romance,” “Stranger Than Paradise,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and on the TV show “Boardwalk Empire.”
Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen references the cigarettes in the title track of his 1982 album “The Nightfly,” singing, “I’ve got plenty of java and Chesterfield Kings.” Punk band Jawbreaker wrote a song called “Chesterfield King,” and there was once a garage rock band named “The Chesterfield Kings.”
“It was still sort of a cult item even as late as the ’80s,” Pollard says. “That sort of happened with a lot of brands out there.”
Though Chesterfields are no longer sold in the United States, they are supposedly still available in Europe. Philip Morris purchased the brand in 1999, but a spokeswoman for its modern incarnation Altria declined to answer any direct questions about Chesterfields, referring the Observer to its website. The website only contains information regarding the ingredients found in Chesterfield-label cigarettes. Questions regarding whether the cigarettes are sold in Europe were referred to Philip Morris International, which did not respond to press queries.
Of the demise of a once mighty brand that hadn’t changed for the better part of a century, Pollard seems nostalgic.
“They really looked old, kind of like artifacts well into the ’80s,” Pollard says. “It’s a bit of a sad thing.”
Many celebrities endorsed Chesterfield Cigarettes in their heyday. Here are a few: