Apr 9, 2012

Vintage Swag: The Rubaiyat of Omar Cigarettes

I have a thing for old books, a thing for vintage marketing stuff, and a thing for turn of the century pop culture, so I was very pleased to pick up this little book at a used bookstore in Austin.

It’s a small hardbound letterpress book promoting Omar Turkish Blend Cigarettes. I’m guessing it came in a promotional tin, or as a giveaway in newspaper promotions or at tobacco shops. Google Books tells me it was published in 1912, but other sources say 1914. This one was covered and kept in someone’s private collection, and the front of the cover paper later removed to show the front. A few pages have also been defaced, and it once contained a color plate in the front, which has sadly been torn out.

So, a quick history of Omar Cigarettes. They were sold from 1902 to the 1960’s and were named after the Persian (not Turkish) mathematician, philosopher and poet Omar Khayyam. Khayyam lived around the turn of the 11th century, and to the west he was largely known for his work in mathematics until 19th century poet Edward FitzGerald translated a selection of his quatrains (rubaiyat) into English under the title, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”

Khayyam became famous in the West because of this translation, which includes the famous line “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou.”  This little book is a parody of the original Rubaiyat in comic book form – each pair of pages contains an illustration and eight lines of verse in which Omar tours modern day New York City, promoting his cigarettes as an earthly indulgence.

You can imagine that by the time Khayyam had filtered through Victorian popular culture enough to become a cigarette brand, all the nuance had been swept away.  For example, here’s the art that was used to portray Khayyam in FitzGerald’s translation.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And here’s how Omar appears in The Rubaiyat of Omar Cigarettes.

The Omar of these comics is, put bluntly, a racist caricature of middle eastern peoples. The book also includes a fair number of slurs against Turkish people, as well as some invented slurs for comic characters living in the real world. And some really bad portrayals of Italian Americans.

This book shows so many differences between American culture in the 1910’s and today. Some of them are references to fashion and technology, and others are social…for example, Omar’s adventures in voting rights.

This book is also interesting because, to me, each of its comics – with a beautifully-rendered illustration on the left and a short poem on the right – is a paper equivalent of a modern TV commercial. Each is a short scene involving some comedic characters interacting with the product.  They’re short enough to absorb in 30 seconds, yet each tells a story.  The narratives are simple and similar to those in modern commercials for beer and snack foods.

The book contains Omar’s “adventures” at all kinds of activities – baseball and football, opera, burlesque, vaudeville, bargain basement sales, horse shows, tea parlors, and even an astrologer or “Star-Gazer”.

The Star-Gazer’s shop illustration has to be one of my favorite things.  There are also seasonal “spots” for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

All in all, between the art and the poems, the book gives a great snapshot of New York City life in the 1910s, as drawn by tobacco advertisers.
As I mentioned, this particular copy carries a second story with it, as it was defaced sometime much later; they changed “Omars” to “pot” on the Election Day comic above. They even went back and “revised” an entire poem to turn Omar’s adventure in the world of baseball into a poem about…something else.

Judging from the language, I’m guessing it was defaced during the 1960s.


Some more interesting things about the object itself: I’m not sure whether the pages were originally trimmed or not – they seem to have been trimmed roughly with a letter opener and possibly a pair of scissors. One pair of pages is ripped, with a tab on one side and a corresponding gouge in the other.

It is printed on heavy, textured paper that has roller marks throughout.
You can see the letterpress impressions on the reverse of each page, too.  Here’s the reverse of the Star-Gazer illustration.  You can see the squares on Omar’s pants and the rippled edge of the astrologer’s robes very clearly.

There are more things I’d love to know about this title – like who the author and illustrator were.  Because it was a promotion, that information has proven hard to find.  I’d also like to know how it was originally distributed and whether the comics were meant for New York City natives or others.

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