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Blowing Smoke: 1943

February 1943. "New York. Camel cigarette advertisement at Times Square." Photograph by John Vachon for the Office of War Information. View full size.

February 1943. "New York. Camel cigarette advertisement at Times Square." Photograph by John Vachon for the Office of War Information. View full size.


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Time to Go

"Lucky Strike Green has gone to war". There was an untold story behind that, which has been told (about ten years ago) in a book called The Father of Spin.

The CEO of whichever company made Luckies contacted Edward S. Bernays in 1932 because he had a problem. He wanted more women to smoke his cigarettes, but they told him they wouldn't buy Luckies because the green clashed with their clothing. Bernays suggested changing the package color, but the exec wouldn't hear of it. So Bernays set about influencing public opinion to make green a "fashionable" color.

He organized an elaborate clandestine PR campaign (Bernays more or less invented PR), to get tastemakers to glom on to the green idea. It worked in the sense that green temporarily became a fashionable color that year, but it didn't move the sales of Luckies by much, and certainly not in a sustainable manner.

If you know that story, it doesn't take much to connect the dots and see that the war was the perfect excuse to get rid of the offending green. Never mind that many folks at the time expressed outrage at a tobacco company's crass claim of "sacrifice," when many were sacrificing much more than a package design.

The Camel Sign

It's interesting, I found a number of images of this billboard online. The structure of the puffing billboard remained the same, just the smoker was repainted over and over again.

1945 (film of billboard in action. Opens in your media player)

T'was true

Most of the cigarette production during WWII went to troops overseas. It's the wrong brand, but many should remember the marketing cry, "Lucky Strike Green Went to War." Today's familiar Lucky Strike pack came into being in stores as Green was shipped off to far-flung battlegrounds. Regarding that steamy Camel sign: My brother and I often sidled by it in the 50s, and would wait for the "smoke" to puff out at traffic. I think we thought it was smoke, not steam. I've often wondered if such friendly advertising contributed to my 20 year habit and my brother's 35 year habit. Alas.

When I was a kid... mom told me that there were 20 guys in a room behind the sign smoking cigarettes. At the appointed time, they would all exhale and blow their smoke through the hole.

Nicotine Nostalgia

My old German father rolled his own cigarettes which he smoked six days a week. However . . . Camels on Sundays!

Remember the Leave it to Beaver episode where Beaver & Larry Mondello climb up on a big sign? I think it was steaming tea.

I'd Walk a Mile

Both my parents smoked Camels. My dad switched to cigars around 1960, he died in 1963. My mom smoked 'em until she died in 1985.

My mom told me that during the war she had to smoke a cheap brand called Marvels because Camels were hard to come by. Apparently cigarettes weren't rationed, but most of the cigarette production was shipped to our troops.

Slower Burning

One of the neon sign slogans apparently was "Slower Burning"

And "I'd walk a mile for a Camel"

What a dump

No one's noticed Bette Davis crossing the street?

Big smoke

When I was about 12 or 13 years old in 1952, I went with my siblings, stepfather and mother on a trip to New York City and walked directly beneath the sign. I was amazed at how large it was. The tube blowing the "smoke" was probably a good 2 to 3 feet across. That scale doesn't show up well in photos.

Shorpy window peepers.

I just love how many Shorpy images have someone looking out a window! The hotel window above the M in Camel has a shadowy face and a hand holding the curtain back.

[That's Ima Lamp. Not much of a talker, but she really lit up a room. - Dave]


I wonder what the neon over the top of the words "Costlier Tobacco" would say when lit? It looks like it can be turned on and off to make different slogans.

Very Lifelike

Does it cough and wheeze?

All those bulbs!

I would love to see a picture of this sign at nighttime. With all those lightbulbs, I bet you could see it from the moon.

Signs of the Times

Ah yes, the sign, the Hotel Claridge and Times Square during the war years. I remember them so well, along with Toffenetti's Restaurant, any Longchamps or Childs NY outlet, the Woodstock Hotel and, when my family was flush, the Hotel Taft and the Roxy Theater. Camels were hard to come by for civilians during the war. My dad resorted to rolling his own using Model smoking tobacco and one of those hand-operated machines.

Mixed Media

I adore these adverts where the object does something -- smoke or steam, movement, three-dimensional objects etc.

Where are my smokes?

I just love the two women in the corner digging through their purses... What might they be looking for in 1943? Money? Ticket to a show?

And the short white socks... Scotty, beam me to NYC, 1943 please!

What's in a name?

"Costlier tobaccos," sounds like today's cigarettes!

Douglas Leigh Inc.

Douglas Leigh, the man who designed this and other advertising spectaculars, was 28 when he arrived in New York from Alabama with $9 in his pocket. He developed a multimillion-dollar business designing and erecting breathtaking signs.

Leigh created the Super Suds detergent sign with 3,000 large "floating" soap bubbles per minute. A 120-foot Pepsi-Cola waterfall, the Bromo-Seltzer sign with actual effervescence and the Old Gold cigarettes sign with 4,100 light bulbs were all Leigh creations.

His giant Camel sign that puffed out real smoke rings lasted for 26 years on Broadway and was copied in 22 cities. He was also the brains behind the 25-foot A&P coffee cup that let off real steam.

-- From Leigh's 1999 New York Times obituary

Ames Billiard Academy

Right behind the Camel sign was Ames pool room, where parts of "The Hustler" were filmed with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in 1960.

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