A cigar was traditionally one of the rewards at carnivals for winning at games of skill or chance. Coney Island offered many such games in the early 1900s. Most people did not win a prize; for them, the carnival barker would declare: “Close, but no cigar!”
“Close, but no cigar!” is cited in print from at least 1929, but the cigar-prize existed since at least the early 1900s. See also the similar expression, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
“I went to a smoke shop, but it had been replaced by an apparel store. Clothes, but no cigar” is a pun on the expression.
[This entry includes research assistance by Stephen Goranson, Bill Mullins and Garson O’Toole of the American Dialect Society list.]
The Night Side of London
By Robert Machray
Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Company
Should you score twenty you will win a cigar. But you do no more than score nine. Undiscouraged, or perhaps encouraged by this fact, you spend another penny, and another, and another—but you don’t get the cigar, and it is well for you that you don’t! For there are cigars and cigars. On you go, and next you try your hand at the cocoa-nuts, or the skittles, or the clay-pipes, or in the shooting-alleys. And so on and on—until your stock of pennies and patience is exhausted.
Mrs. Galer’s Business
By W. Pett Ridge
London: Methuen & Col.
“You’ll never win a cigar or a cokernut,” said Johnnie Leadbetter, “unless you aim straighter than that.”
12 June 1905, New York (NY) Evening World, home magazine, pg. 11, col. 4:
Remember the young chap at the rifle range who nearly put the joint out of business winning cigars?
Seventy-First New York in the World War
Compiled by Robert Stewart Sutliffe
Treasurer, 71st Infantry, N. Y. N. G.
Perhaps it was “three shots for a nickel” but at any rate I prayed that sniper wouldn’t win a cigar for any work he might perform on me.
You Know Me Al:
A Busher’s Letters
By Ring Lardner
New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons
What are you doing pitching or trying to win a cigar?
Old Fulton Postcards
18 May 1929, Long Island Daily Press (Jamaica, NY), “Close; But No Cigar,” pg. 16, col. 6:
Close; But No Cigar
If you are one of those folks who keep a scrap-book of unimportant but nevertheless not altogether uninteresting facts, you might jot down this one brought in by a dirtgetter in Springfield Gardens. It’s about Hugo Straub. Hugo is believed to have set a world’s record in the business of getting-defeated-for-the-presidency. Hugo has finished second in no less than two presidential races within one week.
2 July 1929, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, pg. 1166 col. 2:
The long distance trophy, an appropriately inscribed silver cigarette case, was awarded to Em Gooch who had made the trip from Lincoln, Neb. for the occasion. Several other members came close, but no cigar, and we trust that all those in New York and Philadelphia who failed to show up, without reason, will read these lines with a quiver.
13 December 1929, Long Island Daily Press (Jamaica, NY), “Close-but no cigar,” pg. 1, col. 6:
“Close - but no cigar!”
The refrain of the “knock ‘em-down-and-win-a-smoke” barker still rings in the Christmas Fund Editor’s mind as he considers how close the Christmas Fund came yesterday to having a $200 day - only to miss by a scant half dollar.
6 March 1930, Cleveland (OH) Plain Dealer, pg. 24, col. 6
Close—but no cigar.
30 August 1934, Chester (PA) Times, pg. 9, col. 3:
An unseen pedestrian loomed before their headlights, narrowly dodged the sliding wheels.
“Close, but no cigar,” the lieutenant shouted.
2 August 1938, New York (NY) Times, pg. 23:
From Montauk comes another interesting story, destribed by Walt Willis as “close, but no cigar.”
16 February 1940, New York (NY) Times, pg. 28:
When you narrow it right down, we missed a good day of foxhunting by just twenty-four hours, which, as the circus barker puts it, was close but no cigar.
26 April 1942, Hartford (CT) Courant, pg. C1:
Close, But No Cigar On This Play
Google News Archive
Close, But No Cigar
Monday, Nov. 13, 1944
General Douglas MacArthur prefers to watch, not duck, when enemy planes attack. It was so at Corregidor; it was so last week at Leyte. A .50-caliber bullet from a Jap strafing plane pierced the wall of his command post building, passed within a foot of his head.
Said MacArthur, eying the bullet hole: “Well, not yet.”
The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
“Close, but no cigar.”
Annie Oakley (motion picture) (1935). The actual phrasing here is “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!”