The Big Smoke: How London Gave Cigarettes Their Name

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 13 months ago
The Big Smoke: How London Gave Cigarettes Their Name

It's fitting that a city often nicknamed The Big Smoke is the muse for so many brands of cigarette. While Mayfair, Pall Mall and the like have obvious enough namesakes, one smoking behemoth in particular has an uncanny backstory. In no particular order, let's puff our way through the streets of London.

Photo: World of Tim.

Mayfair: "a good smoke at a fair price"

Names can be deceiving. While 'Mayfair' conjures up images of old fashioned decadence, Mayfair cigarettes can lay claim to neither quality. For one thing, they've only existed since 1992. They were also introduced as one of the cheapest cigarettes on the market, with the strapline "a good smoke at a fair price". As an ad brief for Saatchi shows, 'Mayfair' was chosen to lure in lower income smokers with aspirational values. In recent years Mayfair smokers have been outraged at the "sly" decrease from 20 to 19 cigarettes in a pack.

One more thing — Mayfairs aren't made by a London company, but an Irish one — which is now owned by a Japanese one.

Marlboro: nothing to do with cowboys

Without this street, Marlboro Reds wouldn't exist. Think of the lives that could have been saved. Photo: DAVID HOLT.

Let's stick with deceiving names. While, for decades, the Marlboro brand has been associated with Donald Trump's paradigm of an American man (besides himself obviously), it wasn't always that way. In fact the brand name is derived from a central London street. Fag purveyors extraordinaire Philip Morris had a factory behind the London Palladium in the late 19th century, on Great Marlborough Street. They chose to name a new brand after said street. The 'ugh' was cut to make the name appear sexier. Ironically 'ugh' is the sound people often make when you light up a Marlboro in front of them.

By association, the most famous cigarettes in the world get their name from an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill — one of history's smoking pin-ups. Oh, and next time you get off the tube at Oxford Circus, remember you're in Marlboro County.

Here's a lovely vignette from 27 December 1950 about a man who hurled a brick through the window of the Marlboro Hotel because the landlord didn't have any cigarettes. It was in Hull, not London, but the story's hilarious enough to warrant inclusion:

Image © Local World Limited/Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Bond Street and Old Bond Street

The link between Philip Morris and London's streets doesn't end there. The company launched in a New Bond Street boutique in 1847. No coincidence, then, that in 1902, they brought out Bond Street cigarettes (these had previously been Old Bond Street cigarettes). It's also said that Philip Morris cigarettes 'Cambridge' and 'Derby' are named after London streets, as opposed to the cities themselves.

Ad for Bond Street cigarettes, from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 18 March 1911. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

These days you can't get Bond Street cigarettes anywhere in the UK, let alone on Bond Street.

Pall Mall

More street name links now. Louis Rothman started out hawking ciggies he'd rolled himself, from a tiny kiosk on Fleet Street. Success saw his business up-size and move to Pall Mall — from where, in 1902, he launched the famous Pall Mall cigarette brand. Rothman was doing what Mayfair would attempt over 90 years later, giving his smokes the appearance of prestige (he chose a regal, lion laden coat of arms). The difference is that Rothman's products actually had prestige — he even flogged them to the British royal family.

Strand

One we originally missed: Strand cigarettes lasted an uncommonly short amount of time (1959-60). Yet they were referenced in a David Bowie video, a Roxy Music song, and an episode of Hancock's Half Hour.

Why all the nods? Probably because of this noirish ad, directed by none other than Carol Reed of The Third Man fame.

Come to think of it, we reckon Mark's "you're never alone with a phone" in an episode of Peep Show is yet another Strand reference.

Thanks to Jeremy Logue for pointing this one out. Thanks also to Michael Bundy for telling us about Old Holborn tobacco.

Parliament

We can presume that Parliament cigarettes take their name from the UK's Parliament, because vintage packs appear with Big Ben on the front. Then again, there's not much that hasn't appeared on the front of Parliament cigarettes over the years. There was even a series of special George Bush cigarettes.

The bizarre branding of the cigarette doesn't end there; here's an ad featuring a chain smoking Charlie Sheen, dressed as Clark Kent and fantasizing over a geisha:

By an overwhelming majority, we vote this advert is crap.

Piccadilly

Like Pall Malls and Bond Streets, Piccadilly cigarettes have a direct link to their namesake. The brand was launched by Carreras Tobacco Company, which did indeed have a showroom in Piccadilly. This ad from 1918 may well relate to a slightly different brand of fags, the Piccadilly Circus:

Carreras were best known for their Black Cat cigarettes, named after a real black cat which used to inhabit a Wardour Street shop.

Richmond

It's probable that these smokes, produced by Imperial Brands, are named after Richmond, Virginia (home of tobacco) rather than Richmond, London (home of Fenton). That said, Richmond, Virginia takes its name from Richmond, London, by which logic, Richmond, London has a lot to answer for.

Last Updated 18 January 2017