How were cigars made? What was the process by which tobacco was cultivated, harvested, and formed into a "Clear Havana" cigar? In this article, we'll look at the physical aspects of the cigar industry in Tampa, Florida, beginning with the opening of Vicente Martinez Ybor's factory in 1886 and through the industry's decline in the late 1930s. How did the industry develop? How did the factories operate? Who worked in them? What jobs did they perform? Though you may be familiar with the "Ybor City Story," sometimes the simple questions get overlooked.
Several events transpired in the mid-1880s that set into motion the founding of Ybor City and the industry that came to define it. In 1883, the United States Congress passed the Morrison Act. To spur domestic production of cigars, the Morrison Act placed a higher tariff on the importation of finished cigars than on the raw tobacco used to make them. The result proved advantageous for manufacturers like Vicente Martinez Ybor, who had already moved his cigar factory from Cuba to Key West due to the outbreak of the Ten Years War with Spain in 1868.
In 1884, a Spanish jelly importer and civil engineer visited Tampa looking for a suitable domestic climate to grow guava trees and establish a cannery. "Don" Gavino Guiterrez, an acquaintance of Martinez Ybor and New York factory owner, Ignacio Haya, suggested the two tobacco magnates consider relocating to Tampa. Citing a deep-water port, a humid climate similar to Cuba's, and Henry Plant's railroad extension connecting Key West and Tampa to cities in the north, he convinced the two industrialists to relocate. With the Morrison Act guaranteeing low import duties, a humid climate, and its close proximity to Cuba, Tampa assured the cigar manufacturers quick and easy access to a quality product.
The quality tobacco that established Tampa as the leading producer of "Clear Havanas" originated in the Vuelta Abajo, a rich, tobacco-producing region on Cuba's western coasts. Most of the tobacco used in Tampa's factories came from this fertile "triangle." In 1909, 173,874 bales of tobacco received in the Port of Tampa originated in the Vuelta Abajo, more bales than from four other regions in Cuba combined. Tampa factories were responsible for 27 percent of all unfinished tobacco imported into the United States in 1909, representing Tampa's "most important commodity import."
The type of tobacco used distinguished Tampa and Ybor City from other cigar manufacturing centers in the United States. Cigar factories in the Northeast or Midwest often used domestic tobacco from Connecticut or Wisconsin and generally produced a lower quality, "5-cent" cigar. The production of "Clear Havana" cigars, which contained 100 percent Cuban-grown tobacco, made Tampa unique. Compared to Northeast manufacturers, Tampa's production of Clear Havanas "rivaled Havana itself."
Quality Cuban tobacco begins in the growing fields and farms of the Vuelta Abajo. "The soil's influence is such that each vega (fertile valley) produces a different vintage tobacco–just as individual vineyards in France claim that each of their wines is unique." The planting season begins in October and continues through January when the seeds are first planted in sellers, unique plots designated for young seedlings. When they have grown to 6-8 inches, the postures (young plants) are carefully and quickly transported to vegas, where they grow to their ideal height of approximately 3-1/2 feet in about 45 days.
The veguero (farmer), after meticulously guiding the young seedlings to maturity, can now begin to harvest the tall, green crop. Harvesting consists of six cuttings beginning with the libres de pie (lowest leaves). With each passing week, the next-highest leaves are cut, allowing each set of leaves to reach maturity. The top, Corona leaf, is harvested last.
Once harvested, the green leaves hang upside down inside the casa de tobacco (tobacco house), a small curing barn on the vega used for drying the moist plant. Humidity levels are carefully maintained; the leaves may become neither damp nor dry. The casa de tobacco is monitored daily during this stage of the harvest. Leaves are hung from large drying racks for 6 to 8 weeks, where they lose approximately 85 percent of their moisture and begin to turn golden brown. It is here that the leaves start to develop a distinct aroma. In addition to encouraging the flavor of the leaves to surface, this fermentation process reduces nicotine and resin content.
After the leaves are dried and fermented, they are ready for shipping. The leaves are sorted, graded, and stacked into "hands." 40-70 leaves are piled into one hand. The hands are then wrapped into bales made of burlap and palm bark. Four hands equal one carrot, and 80 carrots equal one bale weighing 80 pounds containing 16,000 tobacco leaves. In the bustling days of the Ybor City cigar trade, the bales were loaded onto a steamer and unloaded in the Port of Tampa, where they were received and picked up by employees of the nearby factories.
Cigar production in the late 19th and early 20th century was an intricate and detailed process requiring several stages and a distinct division of skilled labor. Once the bales were delivered, the tobacco traveled an extensive network before being crafted into something resembling a cigar. "In big plants, each cigar [went] through 8 hands before it [was] turned out." Before rolling could even begin, the bales of tobacco were re-humidified, stripped of their midrib, sorted into filler or wrapper leaf, graded for color and texture, and blended to form a distinct taste and aroma. Once rolled, the cigars were then "selected" for uniformity and packed into cedar boxes. Finally, each cigar was banded with the company's label, and each box was affixed with a tax stamp.
One factory worker said, "The baby was born in the basement." The basement was where the bales of rough tobacco were received and stored until they were ready for use. Often, basements contained the casing department where employees loosened the wrapper tobacco and prepared it for stripping. Casers, or mojadores, emptied the bales into large bins or troughs and sprayed them with water to restore the leaves' pliability. Company records were also sometimes kept in the basement.
The V.M. Ybor factory, still standing at 14th Street and 9th Avenue, kept the casing department in the basement with a tunnel leading to an additional "stemmery" building where tobacco stems were stripped or removed. "Hundreds of girls [were] busily engaged" in the stripping department of the Ybor factory. In general, stripping, which required delicate handling of the tobacco leaves and nimble fingers, was a job held almost exclusively by women. These Espilladoras carefully removed the stems of the tobacco leaf, careful not to rip or tear them.
After wrapper leaves were re-humidified and stripped, they went to Selectors, men who graded the leaves according to color and texture. Because the wrapper leaves would eventually define a cigar's finished appearance, selecting was an essential step in production. Distinctions were made between filler and wrapper leaves. Wrapper leaves are
usually "shade-grown" under cheesecloth or a latticed covering to protect them from direct sunlight. After the curing and drying stage on the vega, wrapper leaves or Corojo leaves are separated from the filler and binder or Criollo leaves and packed separately for export. During these years, wrapper leaves were assessed a higher duty than filler leaves. Due to the high cost of importing wrapper leaf, some factories instead used a domestic wrapper grown in Connecticut from Cuban seed known as "Connecticut Broadleaf." Still, others used wrappers imported from Sumatra to a lesser-extent Puerto Rico or the Philippines.
The entire second floor of most large factories was designated as the workroom or galleria. Here, room for hundreds of workers was available. It was in the galleria that the rollers sat at their tables, working in silence while listening to "el lector," the reader, read news and literature from an elevated platform.
The third floor was usually used for blending. A meticulous task requiring experience and knowledge of different types of tobacco, the blending department was responsible for giving different tastes, flavors, and aromas to the cigars. The tobacco blending in Tampa factories was done entirely by hand, usually in large piles or troughs, and stored in wooden barrels for further fermentation. This arrangement was reversed in some factories, with the blending department on the second floor and the rolling on the third.
Once the bales were received, re-humidified, sorted, and selected, and the filler leaves blended, the rolling process could finally begin. A cigar has two basic parts: the body or bunch and the outer covering or wrapper leaf. The bunch forms the cigar's core and contains several types of filler tobacco. As mentioned earlier, each blend was specific to the factory that developed it. A proper or distinct blend could take months or years to develop and was a secret "as closely guarded as the recipe for Coke."
Filler leaves may take two forms, long or short. Short filler referred to chopped-up or cut leaves and was often a blend of varied grades of imported and domestic tobacco. Short filler, domestic tobacco was usually found in cheaper, 5-cent cigars. The better quality, un-cut, Long Filler Havana tobacco was used in the more expensive 15 and 20-cent brands for which Tampa and Ybor City were nearly synonymous.
Once the precise blend was developed and the wrapper leaf selected, the cigar roller could begin his work. The process of creating a fine "Clear Havana" cigar was closer to an old-time artisan's craft. A cigar roller, or torcedor, in the early days of Ybor City, considered himself "more of an artist than a worker." Workers' unions self-regulated entry into the trade through lengthy apprenticeships and stern opposition to mechanization.
The Spanish Method used exclusively until around 1910, required only a rolling table and a chaveta, a small knife with a rounded blade. Seated at his table, the roller's hands became his most important tool in constructing a cigar. First, the torcedor placed the tobacco blend into his hand, aligning the leaves in the same direction, with the tips of the leaves at the lighting end, and began to form the bunch. The judgment of how much filler tobacco to use for the bunch was an estimate gained after years of experience. Laying the bunch on his rolling table, the worker rolled the blend into a tight cylinder covered by the binder leaf. "The bunch-making stage required great skill and sensitivity because the actual smoking value of the cigar depended on it."
A bunch that was too loose or too tight would not burn evenly. The final outer leaf was added once the bunch was rolled tightly (but not too tightly) into the binder leaf. The wrapper leaf was usually a single leaf. The wrapper leaf provides the cigar with its uniform exterior and distinct aroma; only a skilled artisan could manipulate a single wrapper leaf around the whole of a cigar. The torcedor flattened the delicate wrapper leaf onto his table, smoothing it with his hands and cutting it to the size of the cigar using his chaveta. The bunch was rolled into the wrapper using a spiral motion, eventually covering the entire cigar. When the torcedor worked his way to the head or smoking end of the cigar, the part of the remaining wrapper leaf was smoothed around the end. A small amount of glue, a clear, tasteless adhesive imported from Iran, was applied to create a consistent, uniform look with no apparent seams.
Once rolled and stacked into bundles of about 50, the finished cigars were collected by the foreman and sent to the packing department, where they were placed into boxes for shipping. The escojedores, or packers, were responsible for the outward presentation or "salability" of the cigars. Each box had to present a uniform product. The packer graded various colors from light, greenish-brown, to very dark, almost black cigars. This job usually took place on the first or second floors on the north end of the building to capitalize on the best natural light. Once boxed, the cigars were banded with the company logo, and a small ring was placed at the end of each cigar. The boxes were then sealed and affixed with a tax stamp.
Cigar factory construction suited the product it produced. Few records exist detailing the exact production flow in Tampa's cigar factories; however, some examples are documented. The best example is the factory owned initially by V.M. Ybor. Built in 1886, the factory reached full production by 1887 and is currently the oldest brick factory in Ybor City.
The building occupies an entire block of 14th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Additions included a one-story packing room, a two-story northern wing, and a three-story stemmery building, both added in 1902. In 1886, Mr. Ybor's factory was the largest building in the state of Florida and was praised by local papers, which stated, "The mammoth three-story brick cigar factory...is nearing completion; there is not a more substantial structure in the state of Florida...No expense has been spared to make it both handsome and convenient."
Even without the subsequent additions, Mr. Ybor's factory was a grand achievement. The original three-story structure, however, came to typify the era. Brick construction, large arch windows, and a division of labor departments were traits shared by all factories in the area. Ybor City was "originally laid out for cigar manufacturing." Because of this designation, many, if not all, factories in the area shared similar characteristics. Today, the remaining cigar factories are instantly recognizable, distinct in their uniformity.
The Monne Brother's Factory, built in 1890, is Ybor City's only remaining wood-framed factory. The 50 x 200-foot structure still stands at 19th Street and Palm Avenue. Seven windows across the front tower and 76 along the north and south sides provided ample light for the factory's first
workers, a typical characteristic of all Ybor City factories. Like the V.M. Ybor factory, the first floor contained offices on the northeast side, with the rest of the floor space available for the packing department. Rolling took place on the second floor, where there was room for 1,200 rolling tables and a stripping department. Drying racks were located on the third floor for sorting and selecting the tobacco blends. Separate additions were built for the warehousing and casing of the tobacco bales.
One feature often overlooked is the factories' orientations. Most cigar factories, like the V.M. Ybor and Monne factories, face either east or west. Using natural light was of primary importance in the absence of electric light. The east-west orientation combined with the placement of large windows running the length of the buildings allowed the most natural light to fill the factories' workspaces. Work began as the first rays of sunlight broke over the horizon and ended as the sun began to set in the west. Those in charge of grading and packing the finished cigars were sent home on cloudy days due to poor lighting.
In addition to the placement of factories "on the compass line," they shared other characteristics. Most were three stories, 100 x 150 feet or very close to those measurements, and nearly all were made of brick. An 1894 Tampa Morning Tribune article mentions three factories under construction in the Ybor area, with several more under construction in West Tampa. According to the article, the three Ybor factories – Seidenberg & Co.; Gonzalez, Moore and Co.; and Trujillo & Benemalis–measure 100 x 150, 75 x 150, and 50 x 100 feet, respectively. It is not known why the semi-standardized lengths and widths were adhered to.
Estimates regarding the number of factories in Tampa vary. In April 1902, the United States Tobacco Journal reported, "151 factories in the City of Tampa employ six to seven thousand workers, pay out $3,500,000 in payroll a year and turn out a product valued at $1,000,000 a month." The numbers are awe-inspiring, considering that 16 years earlier, in 1886, Tampa was a tiny rural community with less than 800 inhabitants. 1902 was only the beginning of an industry whose yearly output would peak at 410 million cigars in 1919. The 1921 Tampa telephone directory lists 166 cigar factories in Tampa, Ybor City, Palmetto Beach, and West Tampa. Still, other sources from the period estimate the number of cigar companies at over 300.
Not all cigar production took place in a factory. Buckeyes or Chinchales were smaller shops that employed as few as two or three cigar rollers. Buckeyes often served as entry points into the cigar industry for newly-arrived immigrants who could apprentice at a buckeye before moving into a larger factory. A Buckeye could also serve as a point of entry for factory owners, as it did for Standard Cigar Company owner J.C. Newman. Originally from Cleveland, Newman began rolling cigars in his family's barn. His one-man operation eventually became one of America's largest tobacco concerns.
The firm relocated to Tampa in 1954 and is still operated by members of the Newman family today. Knowing how many people may have produced cigars in their homes, barns, or garages is almost impossible. A 1920 Tampa Times article states that of the 311 factories in Tampa, "90 are big institutions." If the Times article is accurate, with 311 companies, only 90 "large concerns," and only 166 operations listed in the 1921 Tampa Directory, hundreds of small buckeyes could have operated in Tampa.
Before 1910, the factories of Ybor City relied exclusively on the Spanish Method, producing only hand-rolled cigars. Every job–blending, selecting, stripping, rolling, banding–was done by hand. In 1910, cigar molds were introduced along with the Mold Team System. With the mold system, the bunch was placed into the grooves of wooden cigar molds. The closed molds were then stacked into a large, vice-like cigar press. The applied pressure helped the bunch maintain its shape. Once removed from the mold, a wrapper leaf was applied, and the process was complete.
Cigar rollers worked together in a "team" system. One worker prepared the bunch and rolled it into the binder leaf. The completed bunches were placed into the grooves of the mold, which were then placed into the press for 15 to 30 minutes. Rollers applied wrapper leaves to the molded bunches once removed from the press. Because bunches could be quickly made using the mold, two torcedors applying the wrapper leaves were kept busy, concentrating on one job instead of several.
After 1910 almost all factories in Ybor City used the mold system, especially for their short-filler products. Cigar molds and the team system set the gradual mechanization of Ybor City's factories into motion. Always seeking more efficient production methods, manufacturers tried to
streamline factory operations by using automated blending and banding machines and more efficient rolling methods. Eventually, hand-rolled production, even with molds, declined as short filler cigars became more popular and cheaper to produce than the more expensive hand-rolled Clear Havanas.
The workers were not happy. Indeed, mechanization undermined the cigar makers' notion of cigar making as a skilled art. "The cigar machines are ruining not only the cigar makers but also the manufacturers. The factories must compete with other factories in the country. This competition is ruinous..." claimed one worker.
Mechanization–and opposition to it–contributed to the industry's decline. Between 1920 and 1938, the total number of cigar factories in the United States dropped from 11,323 to 4,157. "The 'very scientific' types of machinery have come for making cigars which have displaced in this locality 1,500 operations," claimed a disgruntled Ybor City cigar worker.
By 1939, factory output in Ybor City was in a state of decline. Ybor City's manufacturers encountered competition from Northern factories producing a less-expensive product with lower overhead. Despite the mechanization of some departments, such as banding, the largely by-hand operations in Ybor City could not compete. Additionally, the great depression lessened the demand for high-priced cigars, as did the rise in the popularity of cigarettes. Ultimately, the Spanish Method and the attention to quality that helped give Ybor City its reputation as the "cigar capital of the world" played a part in its demise.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2006
Manny Leto is the Executive Director for the Preserve the 'Burg in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also worked as Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society, then became the managing editor of Cigar City Magazine and Director of Marketing for 15 years with the Tampa Bay History Center.
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE