Pearl of the Orient


Pearl of the OrientI’ve been working on a project recently where I came across the image posted here.I’m always interested in the history of jewelry and I have a specific interest in pearls, so to me, the image was arresting.

So, I did a little research. It turns out this is a color lithograph from a company called Major & Knapp Engraving, Manufacturing & Lithographic Co., New York, NY and dates from between 1860 to 1870.

It also turns out that the lithograph is an ad for a tobacco product, although I’ve been unable to determine what kind of tobacco product.

Of course, to 21st century eyes the use of an innocent child to sell tobacco is a little creepy, but what was the advertiser trying to accomplish in (approximately) 1860 when the ad was created?

The title of the ad is “Pearl of the Orient.” This, in the 19th century, was a reference to Hong Kong, an exotic, mysterious and glamorous locale. The rich ambiance portrayed in the lithograph, the large red tasseled cushion, the gilded mirror, the engraved box, and, of course, the pearls, suggest luxury.

The pearls, in fact, are the most interesting element. Why would they be selected as a product to sell tobacco? In all probability, they weren’t.  Back in the 19th century, pearls were sourced in the “Orient” and were considered luxury products, so it may just have been that association that the designer relied upon in creating the image.  

Matches (a nearly indispensable product for convenience in smoking) were created in 1852 and between 1853 and 1855, the British learned the practice of smoking cigarettes or “Papirossi” from their Turkish allies during the Crimean War. The practice quickly jumped the Atlantic and by 1858 the first cigar shop opened in New York. (Interestingly, the medical journal The  Lancet ran an article on the health effects of smoking that same year.)

By 1860, tobacco was issued as a ration by both the armies of the North and South. To many Northerners, the practice was new, however, Southern men would have known about tobacco because the commodity was grown in the South.

So, although tobacco chewing was still most popular, by 1860 cigarettes were known here and would have been well on their way to displacing the “chaw.”

Given the “Oriental” or “Turkish” cast of the ad (the two terms were often used interchangeably), this might have been an early cigarette ad. The message of course is tying cigarettes to luxury and wealth with a hint of the exotic or novel.

Who knew that pearls were ever used to sell tobacco or cigarettes? Not I. What still remains however from this ad of more than 150 years ago is the indelible association of pearls with luxury.

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