The, “I never inhaled,” lighter collection

Some time ago, I was scrounging through an old shoe box at a local flea market and came upon a treasure. To me, the value of physical object was not as valuable as the inscription.

My father told me that back in the 1950’s, young couples would travel on an excursion boat named the SS Aquarama across Lake Erie. At that time it was a fairly inexpensive way to connect between the two towns – and have fun along the way.

This artifact sparked my interest in cigarette lighters.  They were used not only to ignite my father’s Kents, but serve as an advertising source for anything imaginable. The commencement of my collecting coincided with massive government regulations in the tobacco industry and the numerous lawsuits that followed. This adds some intrigue and paradox to the various 400+ lighters currently on hand.

What started as a sentimental memento, evolved into a quest for some of advertising’s best ironies. Imagine today, signing a half-million dollar life insurance policy with Mutual of Omaha, and their agent extends his token of appreciation with a cigarette lighter. This was common place 50 years ago.

Commonly known as “flat advertisers,” these thin, inexpensive promotional tools were manufactured in Japan during the 1950’s and 60’s. Company names like Rosen-Nesor, Crown, Balboa, Penguin, Vulcan and Rolex (not what you think) were manufacturing these lighters as alternatives to high-end business cards.

These manufacturers kept to a standard size and shape which maximized the imprint area without the bulkiness of other pocket lighters. I wouldn’t compare the quality of a flat advertiser to the likes of a Ronson, Dunhill, Evans, or Zippo – just the size. The imprint process was done via lithography, screened, etched, or a process known as cloisonné.  This is similar to a raised-relief effect using a copper or brass base and filling designated areas with colored enamels commonly seen in lapel pins and jewelry. A mint cloisonné with the original box is a great find!

A high point for my collection is the attention it gathered from Coudal Partners, Museum of Online Museums (MoOM).  Huh?  Coudal Partners is a very respected design/marketing agency based in Chicago.  They have an eclectic approach to creative projects, and embrace vintage design before the word “digital”existed. The MoOM is a fabulous archive of any conceivable collection. These flat advertisers were featured in the quarterly exhibition from Autumn of 2009, and is now part of their permanent annex. “An instant classic.”

Scroll down the MoOM site to the link dated 10.06.09, or you can browse the collection housed on Flickr from the image below: