Where there’s smoke, there’s… steam

“In 1942 the North Carolina crowd at Reynolds Tobacco invaded American Tobacco’s headquarters town and put up a huge sign for Camel in Times Square. Overnight it became the nation’s most famous billboard.

“Two stories high and running half a block… the sign had just three elements: the brand name, its old slogan ‘I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel’ and the  head and shoulders of an American serviceman — a soldier one season, a sailor the next, an airman the one after that — who had for a mouth a perfectly round hole about a yard wide. Behind the hole was a chamber with a synthetic rubber backing that a cam would pull taut as the chamber filled with piped-in steam; a second gear would then cause the elastic membrane to relax with a whooshing sound and propel out the hole several times a minute a perfect simulated  smoke ring that would grow to about 15 feet in width as it wafted over the heart of the nation’s premier entertainment district. Countless millions gawked at the Camel ‘smoking’ sign during the 25 years it remained in place, serving as the prototype for some two dozen smaller versions around the country.”

— From “Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris” (1996) by Richard Kluger

Although a 1999 New York Times obituary of Douglas Leigh, who designed the Camel billboard (and many other Times Square “spectaculars”), refers to its having been “duplicated in 22 other cities,” San Francisco is the only one I’ve been able to confirm. Might North Carolina have had one or more?

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