News flash…it’s not Cuba !
We smoke, we buy sell and trade our favorite sticks, we’re in love with everything cigar (at least I am), and here in the US, always chasing the “White Wale”, El Capitan…the Cuban cigar. The romantic thoughts and images, friends and family members bringing a few back from their cruises and trips abroad; chests puffed-up and poked-out as they present them to you, the holy grail of cigars, spoils of their great crusade.
The history of our infatuation with these rolled delights is rooted much closer to our American soil than one might think…most know very well of the pre-embargo availability of Cuban cigars; but how many of us are truly aware that the cigar capitol of the world is (or was) in the United States of America. Confused ? I bet you are, you see boys and girls from Key West, to Tampa FL by way of Cuba is how this thing unfolds. In the 1830s, commercial cigar rolling began in Florida, by Cuban immigrants.
New York cigar manufacturer Samuel Seidenberg (a German immigrant himself), established the first “clear Cuban” cigar factory in Key West in 1867. Using Cuban laborers to roll Cuban tobacco Mr. 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 cigar workers in Key West and Havana, and by the early 1890s, 50,000-100,000 people traveled back and forth annually.
(Havana cigar shop Key West FL, )
Cuban cigar makers create a new Florida city
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. (informational facts from Florida Memory)
There is so much more rich and incredible history that belongs to this phenomena:
- Mutual Aid Societies
- Social Clubs
- Paulina Pedroso
- Jose Marti
- The Spanish-American war and Cuban independence
The complete history is available for anyone so inclined to pursue, so I won’t try to capture it here in it’s entirety; but I gotta tell you, as a cigar guy I find this interesting as hell. By 1900 Ybor city was considered the cigar capitol of the world…not Cuba, but a carved out spot in hot-ass Tampa Florida. It was thriving.
For more than 50 years Ybor city shined with approximately 150 cigar factories employing and supporting many workers and families, a small buzzing community built for and around the production of fine cigars had come together in a very meaningful way. Our country had fallen in love with the craftsmanship of fine hand rolled cigars, an art form passed down through families…fathers to sons, mothers to daughters, enjoyed by many a cigar fan during that time.
We the people often times look to push through our accepted norms…this time in a way that would have an unforeseen affect on premium cigars. In 1917, a cigar rolling machine was invented that could roll 4,000 sticks per day, and by 1928 more than 50 % of cigars were made by machines. Ybor city began to slowly decline.
Our appetite for advanced machinery had placed it’s filthy hands around the neck of our home-grown Cuban cigar bonanza while we slept. Mother F***er ! But some things refuse to die; while Ybor city, hasn’t reached it’s previously glory, it has surely refused to disappear.
I have to say that upon learning the real history of the Cuban cigar connection to Ybor city, really fascinated me…but in all of my cigar conversations with friends and foe, I never hear of this rich history. While I’m not of Cuban decent (I was born in Bradenton FL), I’m extremely proud of these facts that link the people, the struggle, the tobacco, the art and passion that made this all possible.
There are many other stories that I will write about in the future that were born in Ybor city; but for now I hope this has educated and entertained the reader. Glad to spend this time you, it’s Friday and a good cigar awaits your arrival; don’t disappoint and enjoy your smoke.
ThinkCigar…It’s a lifestyle