A Smoky History Lesson

Every great thing has a humble beginning somewhere. Amazon started as an online book store, the car started off as a horse-drawn wagon, even McDonald’s was once a single local shop with no indoor seating. The same can be said for the massive cigar industry nowadays. It had to start somewhere right?

As with most goods, cigars came about from early international exploration by Europe. That being said, tobacco and primitive cigars existed long before Columbus showed up to say hi. Ancient tribes and cultures all throughout Central America and the Caribbean already had tobacco and had been using it widely. It is believed the ancient Mayans started the trend (read more about that here, and around the time Columbus visited the Americas, his sailors told stories of a tribe in Cuba who were smoking what we would call cigars. Though during that time it was really just twisted, dried tobacco leaves wrapped up in a palm leaf, sometimes held together by string.

Of course, these explorers aren’t going to keep this intriguing plant all to themselves. During the next 50 years or so, tobacco made its way to Europe from these travels. It started in Spain and Portugal, since their explorers were the first to the Americas, and eventually made its way to France via someone you’ve never heard of but you’ve definitely heard of their name.

That man was Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal. If his name sounds vaguely familiar, it is because he gave his name to the naming of a famous chemical. Nicotine. More precisely, nicotine is technically named after the tobacco plant’s scientific name, Nicotiana Tabacum, which got its name from Jean Nicot.

But anyway, that is another story for a different day. Back to Europe. When Sir Walter Raleigh came back to England from the Americas, he brought tobacco with him. Soon smoking was common among the Brits as well, even though they usually chose to smoke pipes.

It didn’t take long for Europe to want more and more quantities of tobacco, and with no real industry among the native tribes, family farms weren’t really going to cut it. So in 1542 Spaniards established the first cigar factory in Cuba to meet the country’s demand for tobacco. At the time, Cuba was a Spanish colony after all. That marked the beginning of a long and tumultuous history of cigars in Cuba. But again, this story is a general overview of cigar history so that is a tale to tell another time.

So by now Europe has a steady supply of tobacco, Central America already had it, and even the Philippines has a supply at this point. All that leaves now is the soon to be United States. After all, we know at some point the sun-grown Connecticut wrapper makes itself known, so how did it get all the way up there? Well, similar to how France got tobacco, it was basically one dude who liked smoking and brought some back home.

Israel Putnam, known by his friends as “Old Put” (seriously, look it up) was a decorated Army general who served with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the U.S. Revolution. The Revolution wasn’t enough for Old Put though. No, he apparently hated the British so much that he served alongside France in the Seven Years War against good old England. During his time in that conflict, he grabbed a stash of Cuban tobacco seeds. Upon returning home, it is believed he planted the seeds near Hartford, Connecticut and gave birth to the Connecticut wrapper.

Old Put’s contribution also led to popularizing cigars and tobacco among the U.S. citizens. New York and Florida became hot spots for cigar production shortly after. Florida became the home of many Spanish-owned cigar factories in and around Tampa. Meanwhile in New York, almost all cigars were rolled by hand in employee’s own homes. It was reported that in 1883, cigars were being manufactured in 127 different apartment homes in New York. This industry employed 1,962 families, made up of 7,924 individuals.

By 1905 there were over 80,000 cigar-making operations in the U.S. alone. These were mainly comprised of small-family owned shops continuing the tradition from New York. Around this time, the industrial revolution was coming about. Many cigar factories started moving to mechanized production, while others stuck with the hand-rolled method either out of respect for the tradition, or simply because it was cheaper. To this day there is still a heated debate over whether machine made or hand-rolled cigars are better or more “authentic.” Personally, as long as it’s a good smoke, I couldn’t care less if it was made by a robot or a human.

But anyway, I got a little sidetracked there towards the end but that is a very brief and rudimentary history of the cigar. Look for similar articles like this in the future delving into specific parts of cigar history with more in depth detail. Until then, I hope this was informative to most of you and maybe even sparked some additional research on your own. The tobacco industry has a very lengthy and intense history so there’s always something to learn.

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