The Vintage Collector





By Franklyn Roberts


I expect a good many of you recognise the name (half a famous cigarette manufacturer, Allen & Ginter). Born in New York in 1824 he began life as Lewis Guenther (his parents were Dutch).


His early life is now largely lost in the mists of time. What is known is that his father was a successful merchant in a busy community near the mouth of the Hudson. In his early teens he moved to Richmond, Virginia. He remained in Richmond for almost all of the remainder of his life.



His original business venture was the selling of fine linens. There was quite fierce competition in this area and so he developed various sales strategies to increase trade. Some people even credit him with the idea of 'gift' wrapping.


The Civil War was to see Ginter as a successful businessman but he enlisted in the quartermaster corps. He earnt the nickname, 'The Fighting Commissary' because he always seemed to end up in the fighting. After driving back a Union attack, he gained the attention of General Jackson at the second battle of Manassas. However he declined the rank of Lieutenant-General offered him at that time. He later accepted Major, a title he maintained in later years.


After the Civil War he returned to Richmond but the linen trade was not the success it had been previously. Moving to New York he set up a banking business with financial aid from some friends. This was a success until the crash of 1873 which left him penniless.


He returned to Richmond looking for employment. He found it with the firm of John Allen & Co. manufacturers of tobacco. It was here that he made something of a quantum leap. Noticing that cigarettes were becoming more popular (still pipes and chewing were the predominate uses of tobacco) he felt that it would be a cost saving to make cigarettes out of Virginian tobacco. It was customary till then to make cigarettes from more expensive foreign tobacco.



In 1875 John Allen was persuaded to try out this venture. Richmond Gems were created, probably the most famous brand of cigarettes the firm ever had. He employed 20 women to roll and pack the cigarettes being potentially the first time cigarettes were ore-packed.


Such was the breakthrough this represented that the packet was exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition of the American Republic, Philadelphia 1876. Soon the orders were flooding in and other brands were created including, Virginia Brights, Perfection, Dandies and Little Beauties. Expansion meant the form went multinational with branches in London, Paris and Berlin.

There is also strong evidence that Major Ginter also created the cigarette card (and certainly the earliest known UK cigarette card was from a packet of Richmond Gems). Producing over 80 sets of cigarette cards during the period, 1885-1890 including the set, Women Baseball Players [1887]. Indeed the beautiful sets that were produced by this firm are among the most sort over sets from the early history of cigarette cards.


By 1884 a thousand workers were making two million cigarettes a day. It is perhaps in this area that Major Ginter made an uncharacteristic error of judgement.  In 1881 James Bonsack of Virginia invented a machine that could roll cigarettes. Most of the majors felt that this would not be appreciated by the public and so turned down the technology. This list included Major Ginter but not James B Duke.


Everyone is allowed one mistake but Major Ginter may have made another when Duke approached Ginter in 1889 (by now Duke had cornered about a third of the market) with the suggestion of a merger. Major Ginter is reported to have said, 'Listen Duke, you couldn't buy us out to save your neck. You haven't enough money and you couldn't borrow enough.'


In 1890 the two firms joined forces along with sundry others to create the American Tobacco Co. (which effectively ended the production of cigarette cards under the name Allen & Ginter) in which Major Ginter was offered the presidency which he declined taking a place on the board instead. He was to remain there till his death in 1896.


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The author of this article owns Franklyncards in England.

Visit Franlyncards online at




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