Books & Manuscripts

Lou Gehrig Lights Up the Field with Camel Cigarettes

By Max Freedman
Lou Gehrig's contract agreeing for a period of one year to license his name, portrait, and agreed-to statements for the promotion of Camel cigarettes is a highlight of the upcoming Fine Books and Manuscripts Online auction (7–21 June 2019, New York).

F rom 1925 to 1939, New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive baseball games – a record that lasted over 56 years. What helped him maintain this unprecedented streak? According to the present lot, it was Camel’s “mild” and “costlier tobacco” that aided his post-game recovery.

Typed document signed ("Lou Gehrig"). Estimate $6,000–8,000.
“There are plenty of times when I feel tired after a game. Then I `get a lift with a Camel'.”
Lou Gehrig

In today’s anti-cigarette zeitgeist, it is difficult to envision the 1930s ubiquity of celebrity endorsed tobacco advertisements. Ignited by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (the maker of Camel cigarettes) in an attempt to become the industry leader in the late 20s, the brand continued to craft these advertisements for almost 30 years. R.J. Reynolds employed an array of athletes to endorse their products – from baseball, football and tennis players, to golfers, cyclists and swimmers – swiftly propelling the company to the top. Riding the campaign’s success, Camel cigarettes immediately branded themselves as the athlete’s cigarette, unveiling mottos that read “so mild you can smoke all you want” and “Camels don’t get your wind.”

Camel advertisement, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1935.

These advertisements seemingly infiltrated all magazines and newspapers. Some even took the form of a comic strip, exemplified by one ad entitled, “Lou Gehrig the Iron Man,” 1935. The comic features Gehrig hitting homers and battling through injuries, accompanied by direct quotes from the contract.

"Lou Gehrig the Iron Man" comic advertisement. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1935.

At the time, R.J. Reynold’s biggest competitor was American Tobacco Company, the maker of Lucky Strike cigarettes. The American Tobacco Company struggled to match the enormous success of the athlete campaign, thus, the company decided to shift their energy elsewhere.

Instead, the American Tobacco Company settled on targeting a different vice – the candy industry. The brand revealed their new motto as “Reach for a lucky instead of a sweet.” Presented as an effortless diet, these advertisements encouraged the consumer to discard their sweet tooth in order to stay thin. They were later forced to drop the “sweet” part of the motto due to a lawsuit from the confection industry.

Lucky Strike advertisement. American Tobacco Company, 1930.

Tobacco advertising campaigns continued to exhibit a pantheon of characters – from doctors and soldiers to cartoons and cheerleaders. As evidenced in Typed document signed ("Lou Gehrig"), we’ve come a long way since “reach for a lucky instead of a sweet.”

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