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A Brief History of the Cigar Industry

War, revolution and regulation have failed to snuff out the continuing story of the cigar.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

The year was 1992. The American cigar industry was in poor shape. The customer base was aging and contracting, sales had been in a steady 30-year decline and the men who made cigars and grew tobacco no longer encouraged their children to follow in their footsteps.

“I did not think that there was a future in the cigar industry,” said Carlos Toraño in 2006, speaking about the state of the cigar industry in the 1980s. His father, grandfather, cousins, uncles—just about everyone with the surname Toraño had worked with cigar tobacco, dating back to Cuba in 1916. But he was happy when his son Charlie chose a new career path, opting to become a lawyer instead of a tobacco man in August 1992.

American cigar consumption was spiraling to all-time lows, having dropped by more than 66 percent between the mid-1960s and early 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Imports of premium, handmade cigars, which had hovered around the 100 million-unit mark throughout the 1980s, decreased by 2.6 percent between 1990 and 1991, to 103.6 million cigars.

“One of [my relatives] compared the cigar business to the buggy whip business,” wrote Stanford Newman about the U.S. cigar industry at that time in his autobiography Cigar Family. “A dying industry with no future.”

But Newman, and everyone else in the cigar industry, had no idea that the cigar boom was about to begin, and this centuries-old industry that has weathered all manner of challenges was about to be changed like never before.

We’ve all heard the tale of Columbus witnessing Cuba’s indigenous population twisting up tobacco leaves and enjoying a rustic smoke, and how the explorer brought the raw material back to Europe. Webster’s dates the origin of the word “cigar” back to 1730, from the Spanish cigarro, and what we think of as a cigar today—made of filler, binder and wrapper—appeared in the early eighteenth century, according to Tobacco in History and Culture. Spain developed quite the appetite for cigars, one that exceeded its ability to produce them, leading to Spanish investment in its then-colony of Cuba, where cigar production began in earnest.

The population of Havana boomed after the king of Spain declared free trade in 1818 in the country, which remained a Spanish colony until 1898. It was during that period that many of Cuba’s famous cigar brands were created. Punch was formed in 1840 by a German, the famous Partagás factory was built in 1845 by Spaniard Jaime Partagás, El Rey del Mundo and Sancho Panza were created by the German Emilio Ohmstedt in 1848 and Hoyo de Monterrey was founded in 1865 by José Gener, a young immigrant from Spain.

One hundred years ago, cigar smoking was quite common, and cigar factories seemed to be everywhere. “The cigar profession commanded a fair amount of prestige at the turn of the century. Cigars were arguably the most popular tobacco product in America,” wrote Stanford Newman. “Almost every city in the East and Midwest had at least one small cigar factory.” These factories were not necessarily large operations, and many were simply a person in a room rolling cigars.

Newman’s father, J. C., began rolling cigars in the barn behind his family’s Cleveland home in 1895, creating J. C. Newman Cigar Co., which still exists to this day. At the time, that facility was one of 300 cigar factories in Cleveland, and one of 42,000 in the entire United States.

Wherever they were rolled, all cigars were made entirely by hand until around 1920, when the first cigarmaking machines appeared, and they became more common after the Great Depression. In the meantime, cigarettes came on the scene, as they were included in the mess kits of G.I.s during the First World War, and began edging aside cigars in popularity. By the mid-1920s they had become the nation’s most popular form of tobacco.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Doc Diaz December 4, 2012 1:51am ET

This was a very enlightening article. An excellent summary, however I am surprised you did not mention the first cigar "boom" in 1964, which was the first real resurgence of cigars since the Golden Age of cigars, which peaked in the early 1900s and started to decline around 1920.

The first boom, in 1964, was related to a number of factors (which I have written about elsewhere) and was helped along, ironically, by the Surgeon General's first-ever report on Smoking & Health. This report claimed that, “men smoking less than five cigars per day have death rates about the same as non-smokers.” This provided a scientific halo-effect for cigars that enhanced that short-lived yet significant cigar boom in the mid-1960s.

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