I always wonder about some of the things that we consume. Some of it just makes no sense. For example, I always wanted to be the fly on the wall the day that some Russian peasant somewhere in history looked in the corner of a room and saw a bucket with rotting potatoes soaking in water. He went over, picked it up, pushed the moldy, blackened, stinking potatoes out of the way, and took a deep drink of the moldy water, and had his first encounter with vodka. Really? What would make anyone want to drink that?
I feel the same way about cigars. Centuries ago, the Taino people in the Caribbean thought it would be a great idea to dry some leaves, roll them all together, put them to their lips, light the end of the leaves with fire, and inhale the smoke. Isn’t that anyone’s first thought when confronted with a bunch of dry leaves? When Christopher Columbus’ men saw them doing that, of course, their first thought was to do it too, and the global love affair with tobacco had its humble and disastrous beginnings. A bit of humor there for a very old and very serious industry that would result in genocide, slavery, great profits, exploitation, jobs, great profits, and health risks. And did I mention very great profits?
I’m not going to do a full blown history of the tobacco industry here, but I do want to concentrate on cigars, because by the end of the 19th century, cigar manufacturing was one of Brooklyn’s largest industries. This time period, when our brownstone row houses were built, our fine churches, civic buildings and cultural institutions were in full bloom, is also the same period that thousands of people were picking and curing tobacco, making, packaging and selling cigars. This is their story.
The earliest explorers in the Americas found just about all of the native peoples smoking tobacco. The Spanish introduced it to Europe, and by the 1600s, everyone was hooked. The British were buying so much Spanish tobacco that they almost bankrupted the country, creating a coin shortage that took an Act of Parliament to halt. All of the Europeans who established colonies in the New World counted tobacco as one of the most important trade commodities. The colony at Jamestown Virgina was established so that they could grow and export tobacco back to England, and break the grip of Spanish tobacco.
Cigars were probably inevitable. The word comes from the Spanish “cigarro”, which came from the Mayan word “sicar,” which means “to smoke rolled tobacco leaves,” sensibly enough. By the 1700s, the word was in use in English. By the end of the 1600s, everyone smoked, except the Puritans, and even they would sneak a pipe in once in a while where no one could find them. Men have always been the biggest smokers, but back then, women smoked pipes and cigars, too, and even children were allowed to smoke. Snuff was also popular, and all tobacco products were big business for the colonies, and later the fledgling United States.
Quality was always an issue, and tobacco leaves were inspected in all states before being shipped overseas. Some of the most powerful tobacco came from New England. Cigar tobacco was the best tobacco, leaving lesser grades for pipes and snuff, and later, cigarettes. Standards and rules were set up for the growing, harvesting, sorting and drying of tobacco leaves, for both domestic and foreign sale.
So what is a modern cigar, anyway? According to Wiki, “Tobacco leaves are harvested and aged using a process that combines use of heat and shade to reduce sugar and water content without causing the large leaves to rot. This first part of the process, called curing, takes between 25 and 45 days and varies substantially based upon climatic conditions as well as the construction of sheds or barns used to store harvested tobacco. The curing process is manipulated based upon the type of tobacco, and the desired color of the leaf. The second part of the process, called fermentation, is carried out under conditions designed to help the leaf dry slowly. Temperature and humidity are controlled to ensure that the leaf continues to ferment, without rotting or disintegrating. This is where the flavor, burning, and aroma characteristics are primarily brought out in the leaf.”
Once the leaves have aged, they are sorted, and the better leaves become the wrappers, while the lesser become the fill. A good cigar is hand rolled, with the leaves moistened for softness and ease of use. An experienced cigar roller can make hundreds of cigars a day, using a special curved knife called a “chaveta” to manipulate the tobacco, and form and shape the wrapper. As most people know, there is a long Cuban tradition of cigar making, but in the 19th century in New York, the tobacco rollers were from many different countries and nationalities.
In researching this story, what surprised me most was that almost every city and town in the country seemed to have had a cigar factory, usually several. Larger metropolitan areas could have hundreds. One did not need a large factory building to be a cigar roller. You only needed the tobacco leaves, which could be grown relatively locally, some tools and a table. Consequently, this was soon an industry begging to be abused by the greedy, and embraced by the desperate.
In 1860, the American cigar industry was born. A very conservative estimate at the time reported that there were over 1,478 cigar manufacturers in the United States, with 8,000 people employed in it, of which 9% were women. Other estimates say that the number of manufacturers was close to 5,000. The government, both local and Federal had finally figured out how to tax the lucrative industry. All cigars had to be packed in boxes that had only a one time use. They were affixed with tax stamps signifying that the tax had been paid on that particular box of cigars.
There were rules regarding the size of the boxes, the number of cigars in those boxes, as well as a grading system for the quality of the cigars, and more. Cigar boxes were wood, metal, and later, cardboard. The familiar cigar ring is invented during the 1860s, as advertising, as once a wrapper was off, no one could identify whose cigar it was. The paper ring assured bragging rights. The tax laws regarding cigars were complicated and confusing, even to the tax collectors. It would take a decade to simplify them. Meanwhile, the makers of cigars organized, founding Cigar Maker’s National Union of the United States in 1864, one of the first trade unions. They would need it.
The manufacturers wanted to cut down on labor costs, and came up with all kinds of ways to do so, usually on the backs of the already underpaid workers. In 1863, one of Brooklyn’s large cigar makers wanted to contract out his cigar rolling to young juvenile delinquents serving time in reform schools and penitentiaries. He framed it to the Brooklyn Board of Supervisors in such a way as to promote educating these young prisoners, and teaching them a trade, so they could make their way in the world once they got out.
The public, in general, did not like the idea, and it really did not go down well with the cigar workers of Brooklyn, who protested in the papers and in the streets. What about their livelihood, and that of their families, they asked? Why should they be punished by having their jobs eliminated? They had committed no crimes, and were legal workers contributing to the tax base. The idea was voted on and rejected. The cigar workers won that round. The next threat to their livelihood could have lived right next door.
Pennsylvania, which grew more tobacco, was the largest cigar manufacturing state in the country. New York State was the second largest, with 41% of the 5,000 factories located in Manhattan alone. Brooklyn had over 900 factories, with only one large factory: Jensen & Wallach at 24 Adams St. and only 30 medium sized factories. All of the rest were small family run, or small businesses, such as in the photo above. Just as a comparison, upstate Oneonta had 6 factories, Troy had 56, and Buffalo had 125 cigar factories.
In addition to all of the legit factories in Manhattan, there were thousands of illegal tenement factories. Here entire families worked to produce cigars, living in the worst conditions of poverty themselves while making an organic food product to be sold on the open market; one you put your lips on and drew into your body. Think of the health hazard possibilities. Local officials did, and finally banned the tenement cigar factories. So they all up and moved to Brooklyn. That part of the story is next.