If you listed your occupation as "stripper" in the early 1900s, it didn't necessarily mean you peeled your clothes off for pay.

In Davenport anyway, it likely meant that you were employed by one of the city's various cigar manufacturers and that your job was to strip out the center stem from the big tobacco leaves and tear the leaf into smaller pieces that would then be used to roll individual cigars.

That's one of the interesting bits of information inveterate collector and Davenport history buff Merle Vastine has learned in gathering memorabilia related to the city's cigar industry and researching its history.

A portion of his collection, including 90 cigar boxes, plus various box openers, lighters and trimmers, is on display now through May at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport.

At one time, Davenport was a cigar capital of the Midwest; at its high-water mark in 1910, there were 34 manufacturers easily employing more than 1,000 people, Vastine said.

Cigars got their start here before the Civil War with entrepreneurs - mostly German immigrants - bringing tobacco in by rail in bales, boxes and barrels from southern Illinois, Wisconsin and Kentucky, he said.

Once here, the big leaves were torn into strips that were wrapped around other pieces of tobacco and placed moist into molds that were pressed and dried to give the cigar its uniform shape. The cigars were then packed into colorful boxes and shipped across the country.

The early boxes were wood, usually covered in paper with lithograph pictures along with the manufacturer's name. Among the pictures in Vastine's collection are one for WOC, the communications company, and another for the I&I, a trolley that ran between Clinton, Davenport and Muscatine, Iowa.

"Anything to personalize it," Vastine explained.

By 1945, there were just two manufacturers left, and the last one, F.C. Gremmel Co. at 908 W. 2nd St., closed in 1961, he said.

"They couldn't compete with the big national cigar manufacturers," Vastine said. Also, as cigarettes became more popular, demand for cigars decreased.

Two of the bigger manufacturers were the Ferd. Haak company, located in what is now Tri-City Equipment, a big redstone building at 527 W. 4th St., and the Peter N. Jacobsen Cigar Co., located in a building at the southwest corner of 4th and Harrison streets.

Another manufacturer whose building still stands was M. Raphael & Sons., now the site of Raphael's Emporium antiques, 628 Harrison St.

In addition to boxes, openers, lighters and trimmers, the display includes carriers, clippers, sample pipes (so you could test your tobacco before buying), ashtrays and advertising giveaways such as calendars and a ruler.

Vastine has been amassing his collection for years, buying mostly at flea markets and from other collectors who, knowing of his interest, give him a call when they find something.

At one point, Vastine sold his collection of boxes to the late Dan Nagle, who put them on display at Pioneer Village in Scott County Park, Long Grove, Iowa. "But I have a passion for it and I got into it again," Vastine said.

He is a Davenport native who retired from the former Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co. and now works part-time as an auction clerk - and as a collector, of course.