Aluminium cigar tubes are as much part of the Havana cigar scene as labelled boxes, cedar cabinets and elegant humidors. The traditional hand-crafted boxes have been around for centuries. But when did tubes first make an appearance and who thought of the idea?
Thanks to research I conducted last year into the 225-year history of the British Habanos distributor Hunters & Frankau, I can answer both these questions.
Much of the story takes place in England and involves a company called J. Frankau & Co. Ltd, one of the principal forebears of Hunters & Frankau. It was founded by Joseph Frankau, who emigrated to London in 1839 from Frankfurt am Main in Germany. After Joseph’s death the company was passed on to his son Arthur, who in the late 1850s established links with another German émigré family, the Upmanns, in Havana, and he became the sole distributor for H. Upmann cigars in the United Kingdom. J. Frankau prospered until Arthur’s premature death in 1904, when his son Gilbert, aged just 21, took over the running of the company.
Gilbert Frankau was a hot-headed young man who rose to prominence not in the cigar business but as an author of popular novels. After Gilbert had almost ruined the company, his family decided that it should be sold, and in 1916 J. Frankau passed into the hands of a rival Havana importer called Braden & Stark.
Otto Braden and James Stark were partners in Braden & Stark. Otto Braden in particular, a German by birth, felt that the H. Upmann brand would be very valuable in the long term. However, he had not anticipated that the bank, which the Upmann family had always run alongside its cigar factory, would go bust in 1922 and threaten to bring down the factory as well. J. Frankau’s board minutes for 4th September 1922 record that: “Mr O. Braden should proceed to Havana in order to assist there in the settlement of the affairs of the H. Upmann factory which has become involved in the failure of the Banking House of H. Upmann & Co, in order to make certain the continued supply of the brand and the retention of the agency.” Otto was authorised to spend a sum of £10,000 towards the purchase of the factory in order “to secure the continuation of the sole agency of the Brand to this Company”.
It took two further visits to Havana before finally, in May 1925, Otto bought the brand and the factory and set up a Cuban company called Compañia Frankau de Tabacos S.A. to manage it. With Otto as its president, Compañia Frankau de Tabacos restored the fortunes of H. Upmann. After Otto’s death in 1930, his place was taken by his 47-year-old son, Waldo.
In 1932 Waldo decided that the Havana cigar trade needed a way to distribute and sell its cigars more widely which guaranteed their condition and protected them against damage. He found that a process called impact extrusion which, using aluminium, could produce a container suitable for cigars at an affordable price. Unfortunately his colleagues did not believe that traditional Havana smokers would tolerate buying a cigar isolated in a tube. Undaunted, Waldo set about designing and patenting a seal for his aluminium tube. Called the Solo-Seel, he covered all the costs of its development himself. In September 1933 he took his idea back to the board, which grudgingly permitted him to conduct a test using H. Upmann cigars. They were launched in December that year. The results were astounding and by May 1934 the board accepted Waldo’s offer of the right to use his tubes exclusively for H. Upmann for five years. In exchange they gave him a down payment of £200 and a royalty of a halfpenny per tube.
A year later, J. Frankau published an advertisement in Tobacco Magazine, that showed a graph of month-by-month Solo-Seel sales. They were heading for the stars. With such a coup under his belt, you would imagine that Waldo Braden was set for a glorious career in the cigar trade. It was not to be.
James Stark, J. Frankau’s chairman, was in poor health. Once again, it was decided that the company should be sold, this time to a highly experienced cigar man named D. G. Freeman of J. R Freeman & Sons.
In July 1935 the motion to sell J. Frankau, including Compañia Frankau de Tabacos, was put to the board. Everyone voted in favour except one – Waldo. During a quick-fire series of board meetings, Waldo tried every trick he could think of to frustrate the deal, including stealing the keys to the company safe. Finally, after he admitted that he had charged an extra, unauthorised margin on his Solo-Seels, D. G. Freeman fired him.
Despite Waldo’s demise, his invention has gone from strength to strength. Last year in the UK, just over 40% of all the Havana cigars sold were in tubes.
Next time you slip a Havana cigar out of its aluminium tube, I suggest you spare a thought for the undoubted, if maverick, talents of Waldo Braden.
This article was published in the Spring Edition 2016 of Cigar Journal.