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The Cigar Box Guitar In the Smithsonian Institution

I clipped this newspaper article when it first appeared in my local paper 25 years ago. The Smithsonian Institution had just opened a display of diverse guitars spanning 150 years, from Prince’s Cloud guitar back to a simple cigar box guitar. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw this in the newspaper and cut the photo out. I had been building and playing cigar box guitars for four years and I never thought any of the originals still existed! It was 1997 and the internet was still in diapers. I had so much to learn.

According to the Smithsonian Institution website, the cigar box guitar in their collection was made by an unknown maker in North Carolina around 1875-1899. It is a four course (4x1) guitar made from a Morris & Son cigar box. Photos:

This newspaper clipping at the top of this page was the inspiration that sparked the Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal’s Tavern and my obsession with collecting the original instruments. If the originals still existed, I wanted to hold them, study them and learn from them. How were they connected to the blues music I loved so much and were there traces that went back to Africa?

Now that I have amassed a sizable collection, it’s interesting that my focus is no longer on creating timelines to fit preconceived notions. That’s because I’ve found antique cigar box guitars in the most diverse areas, from Mississippi’s blues region to lumberjack camps of Wisconsin, from New England to Oregon. There wasn’t just one road that led to the cigar box guitar. There were thousands.

This reminds me of a passage I once read by a brilliant advertising writer:

The Theory of Universal Knowledge: There is a time for every idea, and when that time comes, the idea springs into the minds of several people simultaneously. -Roy H. Williams The Wizard of Ads

In the 1800’s, the cigar box guitar suddenly appeared. My friend, John “Reddog” McNair explains it this way (and I’m paraphrasing): In the 1800’s, railroads started covering all of America. With that, people started sending packages long distances and they used wooden boxes to mail them. These boxes were everywhere and the sizes were similar to guitar, banjo and violin bodies. It wasn’t about cigars or the cigar trade. It was about wooden boxes and people’s need to create instruments.

This is an idea that’s bigger than the blues. It’s even bigger than Big Tobacco! This is about American resilience and creativity. And now this is about a worldwide movement of folks who not only make their own cigar box guitars, but also help others, too.

Most importantly, it’s about the love of music.

That little newspaper rocked my world.

-Shane Speal

Monday, March 14, 2022

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