The world of gaslights was made ever more mysterious by the swirling balls of cigarette smoke rising from the fashionable new objects that dangled from the lips of the rich and famous. They had rapidly replaced the more substantial cheroots and cigars of the earlier generation. One problem that emerged by the 1880s though was that cigarette packets often got crushed in people’s pockets. To solve this, cigarette companies began inserting a small piece of cardboard called a ‘stiffner’ into the packets.
Soon some of the cigarette companies began adding their names and monograms on these stiffners as cheap advertisement. In time, this practice evolved into ‘cigarette cards’. Cigarette cards were informative, colorful and serialized. Not only young kids at home, but even adults began to collect these sets. The urge to complete the set meant one had to buy more cards of the same company.
The topics covered on cigarette cards varied enormously. From animals and birds to different industries of the world, from military uniforms to forms of transport, the series were endless. One of the most popular themes, however, were sports and theatre stars of the day.
Here are some of the stars who caught the attention of smokers in Calcutta. It seems strange that these stars who once set the stage alight and made thousands of hearts skip a beat or two are today so completely forgotten.
The stars depicted here are:-
Calcutta Cigarette Co.
- May Belfort: Born May Egan (1872-1929) in Ireland, she made her name singing nursery rhymes laced with double entendres in Parisian nightclubs accompanied by her ever-present black cat.
- De Mendes: Elsa de Mendes was a Dancehall actress and a huge star of the Parisian stage around the dawn of the 20th Century.
- Mirecourt: Born Adèle Moutot, was a French stage actress at the turn of the century doing vaudeville and musical comedy. She was also involved in blackmailing her lover, American journalist Morton Fullerton, who later went on to have an affair with novelist, Edith Wharton.
- Maria La Bonita: Born Maria Ruiz in Malaga, Spain, she became a Parisian sensation around 1891 when flamenco became a rage there. She married fellow flamenco dancer Manolillo de la Rosa.
- Miss Kuper: Most likely Miss Gwendolen Kuper, a talented Bombay violinist trained at the Royal College of Music, London. She seems to have been active around the time of the WWI.
- Miss Palfrey: May Lever Palfrey (1867-1929) was a London-born, English stage actress. Daughter of a doctor she started acting in her teens. In 1895 she married painter, actor and playwright, Weedon Grossmith.
- Evie Greene: Edith Elizabeth Greene (1875-1917) was a Broadway star who featured in several Edwardian musical comedies. Her biggest hit internationally was the musical Florodora, where she played the lead role.