Travelling fairs, circuses and carnivals were a common sight across America, utilising the railroads to make their entertainment mobile. As well as enjoying the clowns, acrobats and fairground rides, patrons would try their luck at the scores of sideshows. Some tested accuracy – shooting a playing card with an air rifle – while others required strength.
One of the most popular features was, and still is, the High Striker – trying to ring the bell at the top of the tower by whacking the bottom with a mallet. Oversized cuddly toys, sweets or the occasional goldfish are the standard prizes today, but the early sideshows offered cigars to the winners. Therefore, to lose narrowly is to be ‘close but no cigar’ – something carnival workers would take great delight in bellowing out.
As the carnivals moved frequently, the phrase spread quickly. The first written accounts of its use were in the early 20th century – when it was already a part of the vernacular.
One of the best-known early references came from the 1935 film Annie Oakley and the line, “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” The expression was also put to expert use in a 1949 news story from a small town in Ohio. When the Lima House Cigar and Sporting Goods Store was almost destroyed by a fire, the headline of The Lima News was, of course, ‘Close But No Cigar’.