Happy Presidents Day 2017! This gem of a cigarette pack was used in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign. In a revolution in our political system, Ike beat Adlai Stevenson, returning a Republican to the White House for the first time in two decades.
Among Ike’s great achievements was guiding the country through both open war and Cold War. When leaving office, he left the country a warning about the danger of combining influence under the military-industrial complex:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
His words ring true to this day, under all governmental administrations.
“Made from Genuine and Unadulterated Bear Shit” – So reads the side of this cigarette pack label. I sincerely hope this is not a case of truth in advertising. The other side of the label reads “The cigarette that you always wanted to smoke but were afraid to try.” Even after 5 seasons working at a nature center, and having handled quite a bit of excrement – we called it “scat” or, more politely, fertilizer – I would not want the remnants of a bear’s digestive track anywhere near my mouth.
If the idea of flaming poo near your mouth isn’t enticing, the design on the pack is cute as a button (much like the “Cookie Jar” brand, which features a teddy bear). A panda bear is sitting in a patch of bamboo shoots and smoking his favorite brand. From the smile on his face and the sparkle in his eyes, the taste must be wonderful. Then again, he could just be taking a shit.
Chapultepec Zoo Panda
This is part of a series of packs my father picked up in the late 1970s in Tijuana, Mexico. (Check out the “Bull Shit” Cigarette label!) Why, you ask, is there a panda bear on a Mexican cigarette pack? Great question! In 1975, the Chapultepec Zoo received its first pair of pandas – Pepe and Ying Ying – as a gift from the People’s Republic of China, and they proceeded to have Latino panda cubs. That’s a lot of manure for producing Bear Shit cigarettes.
Like the other packs in this series, the Bear Shit label features a friendly description on the reverse. The text praises the pleasant flavor and declares, in English that would make my 4th-grade teacher Mrs. Zisow cringe, “You can’t find this kind of cigarettes in eny other part of the world. If you smock this cigarettes you are going to feel like an other man.” This is a clear example of a Mexican company catering to the American tourist crowd vacationing in Tijuana and elsewhere around the country.
In my summer camp, one of our favorite break activities was a card game called “Bull Shit!” It was all about calling your opponents’ bluffs, and screaming “Bull Shit!” as often as possible. Hmm, I wonder why the counselors didn’t like us…
“Bull Shit!” is one of those inventions of American slang that makes our language so endearing. Allegedly, Leonid Tarassuk, former curator at the Hermitage in Leningrad and noted jokester, fell in love with this phrase when he was fighting against Soviet anti-Semitism and applying to leave the country. It became his favorite slogan, according to Soviet Jewry activist Fabian Kolker, and he stamped it on every visa request the government denied. At some point, he even wore a belt with “Bullshit” engraved on the buckle.
But this pack of cigarettes takes the cake for Bull Shit ingenuity. The label features a bull, you guessed it, fertilizing the field with a patty of his excrement. And he looks so happy, with a smile that reminds me of that look my friend’s baby makes while making a “deposit” in his diaper. This is genius advertising, because the first thing a cigarette smoker wants to be reminded of is that his tobacco was fertilized with poop.
My grandfather got a kick out of these cigarettes and used to show them off. He had a whole series of cigarette packs – including horse shit, rabbit shit, cangaroo [sic] shit, chicken shit, donky [sic] shit, and bear shit – all produced by a tobacco manufacturer in Tijuana. They were gifts from my father and a friend of the family. Yeah, they were real shitty gift-givers.
For fun, check out the text on the back of this pack in the picture below. Apparently, these were real tobacco cigarettes (as indicated by the Mexican tobacco stamp. But the manufacturer had a blast, writing “We ar[sic] happy with Our Cigarettes Shit” and “Bull Shit Cigarettes… You really taste good!…” on the side of the label. These are great gag cigarettes to show your friends, but as the pack warns, you probably wouldn’t want to give them to a young cow in love.
Imagine you walk into the general store, as the postman brings Mrs. Smith a letter:
“A letter from your boy, Mrs. Smith. What’s the news from the boys at the front?” A shady fellow in the back of the store perks up his ears, listening into the latest gossip. “Oh, mostly quiet exercises. Thankfully not much action. But he says he’s looking forward to seeing the girls in Versailles once his division breaks through.” Everyone shares a good laugh and raises three cheers for the boys in arms.
One week later, Mrs. Smith receives another letter, this time from the Army, informing her that her boy died in an air attack outside Versailles.
“Rumors Cost Us Lives” was a mantra of the home front during WWII, with the suspicion that American bars and alleyways were filled with enemy agents eager to catch gossip about the soldiers and use it against them.
My grandfather’s letters home were very detailed – talking about his buddies and the ladies – while he was still in Texas training for the war. But once he got to the Pacific, he had to watch his words carefully.
Americans were accustomed to speaking freely and carelessly, and that left our soldiers vulnerable. According to the Library of Congress’ exhibit “Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture,” social scientists worked with the government on a campaign to promote caution in describing anything about the front. The effort produced a number of posters and films disseminated across the country.
I came across the “Rumors Cost Us Lives” poster while I was creating a new page for WWII-era cigarette packs in my cigarette collector store – check it out here – and I was absolutely blown away by the picture. The smoking man in a bowler hat is a perfect undercover agent. He’s shady inside and out, with the brim of his hat literally casting a shadow over half his face. Hand to his ear, cigarette burning down, he hears all. Who knows what he does with what he learns? A menacing newspaper clipping at the bottom reveals the outcome: the information was passed to a German U-Boat Captain who destroyed the Allied vessel and laughed as he torpedoed the survivors’ life boat!
Nowadays, with WikiLeaks and traitors like Edward Snowden, it’s a miracle our army is able to keep any secrets. Modern spies seem to hang out in chat rooms and hacker dens rather than bars and general stores. In the war against terrorism, watch what you type about our soldiers.