cohiba cuban cigar

How Cigars Became Part of the Tangled U.S.-Cuba History

By the turn of the century in 1900, four out five American men smoked cigars.

Cigar box design became an important way to differentiate among the multitude of brands on display in stores around the country.

The cigar business was a large industry, and factories employed thousands of people before mechanized manufacturing of cigars became practical. Cigar workers in both Cuba and the U.S. asserted rights through labor strikes and disputes from early in the 19th century.  In fact, the rise of modern labor unions can be traced to the Cigar Makers’ International Union and other cigar worker unions.

RELATED: Cuba as Depicted in 19th Century Cigar Box Design

While cigarette smoking in recent decades has been slowly declining in the face of massive regulation and anti-tobacco campaigns in the U.S., cigar smoking has held steady generally and is on the rise among teens.

DEFINITION: Clear Havana – cigars that were rolled in the U.S. but made entirely from Cuban tobacco that had “cleared”  U.S. customs

In all socio-economic levels, puffing on a good cigar – or even a bad one – is looked upon by many as a sign of taste and sophistication. A lively cigar culture like that of wine aficionados flourishes.

This is great news in a little corner of Tampa, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico coast. It’s Ybor – pronounced “EE-bore” – City, an old neighborhood that’s become a tourist destination.

Cigar making in Pinar del Rio
Cigar making in Pinar del Rio. Image by Cuba Journal

Guess what they’ve been making there for 125 years?

Aromatic, hand-rolled cigars.

The modern cigar industry began in Cuba, but things got tense there right before the Spanish-American War in the late 19th Century. So a lot of cigar makers moved their shops to Key West, a little island at the very bottom of Florida.

RELATED: Cuba’s Cigar Exporting Future

But up on Florida’s west coast, Tampa’s mayor was looking for something to perk up what was then a miserable little fishing village. Come to Tampa, he told cigar makers, and we’ll practically give you thousands of hectares of land.

Hundreds – led by a Spaniard named Don Vicente Martinez Ybor – accepted his offer and set up shop after a fire ravaged Key West. Pretty soon a Tampa neighborhood took his name: Ybor City. In the beginning, it was populated by thousands of immigrants, mainly from Cuba.

More than 250 factories opened there, and Tampa became “cigar city” for the entire world because it was the largest cigar manufacturing region in the world. But as cigarettes overwhelmed cigars in popularity in the mid-20th Century, a lot of Ybor City cigar makers closed up shop. And big companies bought out little ones and moved to Central America.

Pinar del Rio Cuba
Processing Cohiba wrappers in Pinar del Rio Cuba. Image by Cuba Journal
How Cigars Became Part of the Tangled U.S.-Cuba History was last modified: February 25th, 2017 by Simons Chase