While it can’t be proven definitively, it’s likely that the phrase originated at fairgrounds around this time. Much like fairs today, booths would be set up and fair workers would host overpriced, nearly-impossible-to-win games for happy fairgoers to try. Games of strength, accuracy, and skill were played by men and women, and, occasionally- just enough to keep people interested- an individual would win.
So what does this have to do with cigars? These days, moms and dads at the fair usually have children hanging off of them begging for the biggest stuffed animal hanging from the ceiling of the game booths. Back then, though, the prizes weren’t typically for kids, but for mom and dad, and cigars were a very common prize given out to winners at the time.
Because of this, most etymologists think it likely that the phrase originated from when someone came close to winning one of the nearly impossible games, but ultimately lost, earning “no cigar,” with game workers belting the phrase out when people lost, trying to draw crowds and encourage the person who got close to try again. As these fairs traveled around, the phrase spread rapidly.
As to some of the first written accounts of the phrase that have survived to today, these started popping up in the late 1920s through the 1930s. In the earliest instances, not only did they pop up randomly throughout the United States at close to the same time, but they were also being used in such a way to imply that the expression was already familiar to the masses.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the first such instance was from March 6, 1930 from the Cleveland Ohio Plain Dealer, where a bowling match was described:
Peters..toppled the maples for 120, 100 and 100. Scott was right behind him with 113, 115 and 117. Close—but no cigar.
However, there is at least one earlier instance I was able to find, this one being found in the Long Island Daily Press on May 18, 1929, with the phrase appearing as the headline of the article titled “Close; But No Cigar”, about a man named Hugo Straub who finished second in two presidential races he was running that ended in the same week.
From here, there are numerous instances of the phrase popping up all over the United States, such as in the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, colonel, but no cigar!”
In September of that same year, the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania published an article stating,
“It was a ”close, but no cigar” that deal by which Pretzels Pezzullo, Phillies’ left-hander, was to go to the Hazelton New York-Penn League Mountaineers.”
In 1934, the Chester Times, also of Pennsylvania, published,
“An unseen pedestrian loomed before their headlights, narrowly dodged the sliding wheels. ‘Close, but no cigar,’ the lieutenant shouted.”
Throughout the 1930s, the phrase started appearing in newspapers more widely and by the late 1940s was nearly ubiquitous. There was even a story in 1949 from Lima, Ohio about a cigar factory nearly burning down which used the phrase, “close, but no cigar.”
“Close, but no cigar” continues to be a phrase popularly used today, which is slightly surprising considering the stigma now associated with smoking and tobacco products, as well as the drastic reduction in popularity of cigars since the early 20th century. But, like “roll down the window”, despite the fact that the phrase is somewhat antiquated, it popularly endures.
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- The AARP lists seven carnival games to “beware” next time you go to the fair. Favourites like the milk bottle pyramid, ring toss, and balloon dart throw are often rigged to prevent you from winning, or at least lower your odds. Those milk bottles you’re trying to knock over may very well be filled with lead, the rings you’re using are usually just a tiny bit wider than your target, and the balloons are underinflated to make the darts bounce off. You probably won’t be winning a prize—and certainly not a cigar—at any of these! Just ask Henry Gribbohm, the 30-year-old who lost $2,600 to a game of ball toss and only has a giant stuffed banana to show for it.
- Cigars were used as a form of celebration in other ways, too. Notably, after the birth of a baby. The tradition might date back to certain tribes of Native Americans who exchanged gifts at the birth of their children—with rudimentary cigars being a very prized gift. Or, perhaps slightly more likely in terms of how the tradition became widely popular, it could have simply come from the fact that typically births were done in the home until relatively recently in history, with the dad-to-be waiting anxiously in one room while the baby was being born in another, with strong stigmas against men being present at the birth of their children. Smoking a cigar would then be something of a way to try to relax and pass the time. This could have easily morphed to a tradition of passing out cigars after the birth as a celebration. Whatever the case, the practice later made its way to the hospital when hospital births became commonplace, though of course today if you tried smoking a cigar in the hospital, you’d very likely be kicked out.
- The first instance of “close but no cigar” is sometimes inaccurately attributed to a National Geographic article that was thought to have been published in 1930. The article states, “They replied, making smoke at the same time and, as at Empress Augusta Bay, their salvos fell in patterns so tight they could be covered with a blanket, always close but no cigar, though on Claxton’s bridge, though on Craxton’s bridge the officers sloshed around in water two feet deep from the splashes of shells that dropped right alongside.” However, this article likely wasn’t published in 1930 at all; you can blame the incorrect date on Google Books. In actuality, the National Geographic volume in question was probably published sometime during or after World War II, as there are references to events that occurred in 1943, such as The Battle of Empress Augusta Bay.
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