Commercial cigar rolling in Florida began with small-scale operations started by Cuban immigrants in the 1830s.
German immigrant and New York cigar manufacturer Samuel Seidenberg established the first “clear Cuban” cigar factory in Key West in 1867. By using Cuban laborers to roll Cuban tobacco, Seidenberg pioneered the idea of making authentic Cuban cigars in America while avoiding the high tariff levied against products from Havana, as well as the trade restrictions imposed by Spain.
There was a strong natural connection between the cigar workers in Key West and Havana, and by the early 1890s, 50,000-100,000 people traveled back and forth annually.
Vicente Martinez Ybor, one of the most significant figures in the history of cigar making in Florida, established a cigar factory in Key West in 1869. Ybor had run a very successful cigar manufacturing business in Cuba, but he fled the country after colonial authorities discovered his connections with revolutionaries.
In 1885, he moved his cigar making operation from Key West to Tampa. Steamships could bring tobacco leaves from Cuba for the cigar factories, and Henry Plant's new railroad connected the small town of Tampa to the rest of the country. The area around the cigar factories grew and became known as Ybor City.
Immigrants came not just from Cuba, but from Italy, Spain, and throughout Eastern Europe and Latin America in search of work. At its height in the 1880s, there were more than 100 factories in Key West. By 1910, there were 150 factories in the Tampa area employing more than 10,000 workers. Of the 50,000 residents of Tampa, 14,000 were Cuban, 7,500 were Spanish, and 1,500 were Italian.
Mutual aid societies were central to the culture of the new Florida communities. Cubans, Spaniards, Italians and Germans formed clubs where members and their families could socialize, attend performances and dances, play cards and dominoes, and receive free medical services.
The Cuban clubs were also an important source of fundraising and political support for the Cuban revolutionary movement.
Florida's Cuban immigrants were strong supporters of the United States' involvement in the Spanish-American War. Cuban-Americans from every social and economic level supported the cause of Cuban independence. Revolutionary leader José Martí toured Ybor City, West Tampa and Key West, delivering speeches to large crowds wherever he went.
By 1889, strikes and organized resistance to factory demands were commonplace. Over the next two decades, cigar workers became increasingly organized and held strikes more frequently. This helped push more of the cigar manufacturers to leave Key West, most of them resettling in the Tampa Bay area.
Strong union culture was an essential aspect of the Cuban cigar factory upon which many of the Florida factories were modeled.
The Lector was a factory worker, usually selected by fellow workers, to read aloud during work hours to help pass the time and keep the workers’ minds occupied. Although the Lectors read all sorts of materials from fiction to news articles, choices were often very pro-union, in favor of Cuban independence, and in Tampa, increasingly leftist and anti-corporation. By 1931, after years of dispute over the role of Lectors in changing factories, the major Tampa companies banned them once and for all.
Cuban society was not as rigidly segregated by race as in the southern United States. Cuban-Americans of all skin colors in Ybor City worked side by side in the cigar factories and belonged to the same social clubs.
In the 1890s, laws formalizing the segregation of public facilities and businesses, often called “Jim Crow” laws, spread throughout the South. The separation of jobs between white and black workers became more common and certain specialized jobs became off-limits for black workers.
Jobs in the cigar factories were also sometimes segregated by gender. Some factories limited the most skilled positions to men. Women were often relegated to traditionally female jobs such as “stemmers,” those removing the center stem from leaves, whereas men occupied other areas of cigar work such as selecting wrapper leaves.
However, small factories called chinchals employed men and women at all skill levels in order to maximize the work of fewer employees. Women became more commonly employed in skilled positions at large factories by the 1930s, although still working for lower wages.
Cigar factories appeared in numerous Florida cities during the late 1800s, such as in Jacksonville and the Wanish Factory in Tallahassee. Tobacco remained an important agricultural product in north Florida, particularly in Gadsden County, where tobacco was a chief agricultural product for more than 150 years.
Quincy in Gadsden County was the American center for shade tobacco production. Factories produced cigars and cigarettes in Havana (named after the Cuban capital) and Quincy, Florida.
Cigar manufacturing took place in all of Florida’s urban areas at some point during the first century of statehood, but its impacts were particularly profound in Key West, and in the Ybor City and West Tampa areas around Tampa Bay.
The cigar industry prospered in Florida during the early decades of the 20th century. A combination of factors caused the industry to decline, however, as time moved forward. Conflicts between organized labor and factory managers slowed production, while new machines were able to turn out cigars much faster and cheaper than the hand-rolling method. Demand for fine cigars decreased during the Great Depression, and by the end of World War II enough cigar factories had closed to make the industry less attractive for returning veterans.
The cigar industry changed the cultural landscapes of cities like Tampa and Key West. Historic districts still feature buildings once dedicated to the art of the hand-rolled cigar, and local histories still count the industry as a critical influence.
Beginning in the 1960s, master cigar makers demonstrated the art of traditional cigar rolling at the Florida Folk festivals. Ybor City continues to honor the impact of the cigar industry through the Cigar Heritage Festival.
Although all of the original factories in Key West have long since been shuttered, hand-rolled and specialty cigar shops are a prominent attraction in Key West. Through them, the city and its millions of annual visitors rediscover the legacy of the Cuban cigar tradition and the importance of cigar factories in the city’s history.
Document analysis is the first step in working with primary sources. Teach your students to think through primary source documents for contextual understanding and to extract information to make informed judgments. The document analysis worksheets created by the National Archives and Records Administration are in the public domain.