end label - 3883 Bytes Historical Museum of Southern Florida
Florida's Cultural Legacy: Tobacco, Steam & Stone
by L. Glenn Westfall

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The mid-19th century civil war in Cuba, the political unification of Germany and the use of steam power for offset printing significantly influenced Florida history. The ink and stone of the German lithographer became the successful medium by which Cuban cigars, produced in Florida, were promoted in advertisement art throughout the world. It was an art form of extraordinary detail and exquisite beauty, and one which provides a window to the intertwined cultural legacies of Cuba and Florida.


Florida's Hispanic Heritage

From its discovery by Ponce de Leon in 1513 to the present, "La Florida" has always been affected by the politics of Spain or Cuba. Even after Florida was purchased by the United States from Spain in the 1819 Adams-Onis treaty, the new Southern territory continued to be influenced by 19th century events in Cuba.

Spain Develops Free Trade in Cuba

By the late 1820s only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish domination. Although Spain lost her other New World colonies, the Spanish Crown was determined to maintain control of Cuba as a possible embarkation point to eventually reconquer her lost empire. In 1817, Spain passed the Decreto Real, a liberal trade agreement which opened Cuba to world markets for the exportation of coffee, sugar and tobacco. The Spanish government hoped that a surge in the Cuban economy would be rewarded with political loyalty. Economically, the Decreto Real stimulated an extraordinary growth of tobacco plantations, developed a cigar industry, and resulted in the formation of a prosperous middle class of cigar making artisans. However, instead of developing allegiances to Spain, prosperity catalyzed a momentum for independence from Spain.

The Cuban Economic Renaissance

El Pinar - 7016 BytesAfter the implementation of the Decreto Real, Cuba's exotic products of tobacco, sugar and coffee were soon in great demand throughout world markets. By 1845, tobacco replaced sugar as the major export item. The province of Vuelta Abajo had ideal soil and climatic conditions to produce a tobacco leaf with an aromatic odor and a mild flavor found nowhere else in the world. The sale of cigars made from Vuelta Abajo tobacco soared as connoisseur smokers filled their humidors with coveted Cuban cigars. The worldwide demand for Cuban tobacco in the 1840s was a catalyst for Cuban economic, political and social change.

Evolution of the Cuban Cigar Industry

In its formative years, the process of cigar making in Cuba was relatively simple. Tobacco farmers usually rolled a few cigars as a supplemental income. In the early 1830s, a group of enterprising businessmen known as brokers purchased cigars from the farmers in small bundles, placed brand names on them, and sold the cigars to Havana merchants for distribution. Several brokers later established small cigar shops, called chinchales, and hired tobacco farmers from the country to produce cigars in Havana. The cigars were usually exported while scrap tobacco left over from making cigars was used to produce cigarettes for local consumption.

inner label - 6314 BytesThe transformation of cigar making in Cuba from a cottage industry to factory production during the first half of the 19th century was miraculous. Small tobacco farms were consolidated into large tobacco plantations, and large scale factory production in urban centers replaced the cottage industry.

The need for skilled cigar making artisans created a small but prosperous middle class of cigar workers in Cuba's urban centers. By 1853, the silhouettes of factory buildings along the Havana skyline indicated the success of both cigar and cigarette manufacturing. Hundreds of accredited brand names were officially registered, and by 1859, there were 1,295 Cuban cigar and cigarette shops which employed more than 15,000 workers, most of them in Havana.

Apprenticeships for Cigar Workers

In Cuba, cigar workers underwent an arduous apprenticeship before they were considered qualified to work in a factory, a practice which was later brought to Florida. Strippers learned how to cut the stem out of the tobacco leaf. A selector was trained how to separate the tobacco leaves by size, color and quality. Packers were skilled in carefully inspected finished cigars to ensure that they were rolled evenly and packed them in bundles or boxes.

The most talented cigar workers were cigar rollers who often apprenticed for a year before qualifying as a cigar making artisan. They learned the skillful art of how to select and blend the proper amount of filler leaf to give a cigar its desired flavor.

To make a cigar, filler tobacco was placed in the palm of their hand and carefully rolled together so that the finished cigar would burn evenly. They also learned how to select the proper size of wrapper leaf, cutting it with a knife, or chaveta. It was then evenly wrapped around the filler. The next stage of cigar making was to place the tobacco wrapper leaf on the cigar. Wrapper leaf was selected from the best quality shade wrapper tobacco available. Its color and flavor were crucial factors in the final stage of cigar making since it gave the outward appearance and aromatic qualities of the cigar. Lastly, the excess leaf at the lighting end of the cigar was clipped off evenly and a piece of wrapper leaf was placed on the smoking end with a vegetable celluloid. Cigars were made in hundreds of sizes, and their thickness was measured with a ring gauge.

While the skills of Cuban cigar rollers were renown, another reason for the success of Cuban cigars was the tobacco used to make them. Cubans often compared the bouquet of Vuelta Abajo tobacco to the fragrance of tropical flowers. They claimed that only in the tropics could you grow the best quality tobacco leaf, a belief which was shared by connoisseur smokers throughout the world.

The Lectors

Cuban cigar workers became educated, thanks to the tradition of lectors, one of the most prestigious professions of the cigar industry. Lectors were paid by contributions made by the cigar workers. The more popular the lector, the higher the salary he could demand. Lectors were usually seated in a chair elevated above the cigar roller tables in a factory so their voices could be easily heard throughout the room. They began the work day by reading excerpts from a local newspaper, a newspaper from Spain, followed by readings from a novel or the works of a political philosopher. The selection of the book or topic of reading was voted upon by the cigar rollers. Although cigar workers may not have been able to read or write, they could easily quote Shakespeare, Voltaire, Zola and Dumas. Lectors also made cigar rollers aware of politics and world events, acquainting them with the political issues and questioning the political authority of Spain. As the Cuban cigar industry prospered, lectors were viewed by the Spanish authorities with increased suspicion.


next Tobacco Art, Part 2

From South Florida History Magazine, vol. 23, no. 4 (Fall 1995/Winter 1996), pp. 13-23. The contents of South Florida History Magazine are copyrighted ©1996.


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