Nobody knows for sure when the tobacco plant was first cultivated, but there is little doubt about where. The native peoples of the American continent were undoubtedly the first not only to grow, but to smoke the plant, which probably first came from the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. It was certainly used by the Maya of Central America, and when the Maya civilization was broken up, the scattered tribes carried tobacco both southward into South America, and to North America, where it was probably first used in the rites of the Mississippi Indians. It didn't come to the attention of the rest of the world until Christopher Columbus' momentous voyage of 1492.
Columbus himself was not particularly impressed by the custom, but soon Spanish and other European sailors fell for the habit, followed by the conquistadors and colonists. In due course the returning conquistadors introduced tobacco smoking to Spain and Portugal. The habit, a sign of wealth, then spread to France, through the French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot (who eventually gave his name to nicotine, and Nicotiana tabacum, the Latin name for tobacco), and to Italy. In Britain, as every schoolchild knows, Sir Walter Raleigh was probably responsible for introducing tobacco and the new fashion for smoking.
The word tobacco, some say, was a corruption of Tobago, the name of the Caribbean island. Others claim it comes from the Tabasco province of Mexico. Cohiba, a word used by the Taino Indians of Cuba was thought to mean tobacco, but now is considered to have referred to cigars. The word cigar originated from sikar, the Mayan word for smoking.
Although the first tobacco plantations were set up in Virginia in 1612, and Maryland in 1631, tobacco was smoked only in pipes in the American colonies. The cigar itself is thought not to have arrived until after 1762, when Israel Putnam, later an American general in the Revolutionary War, returned from Cuba, where he had been an officer in the British army. He came back to his home in Connecticut, an area where tobacco had been grown by settlers since the 17th century (and before them by the Indians), with a selection of Havana cigars, and large amounts of Cuban tobacco.
Before long, cigar factories were set up in the Hartford area, and the attempt was made to grow tobacco from Cuban seed. Production of the leaves started in the 1820s, and Connecticut tobacco today provides among the best wrapper leaves to be found outside Cuba. By the early 19th century, not only were Cuban cigars being imported into the United States, but domestic production was also taking off.
The habit of smoking cigars (as opposed to using tobacco in other forms) spread out to the rest of Europe from Spain where cigars, using Cuban tobacco, were made in Seville from 1717 onward. By 1790, cigar manufacture had spread north of the Pyrenees, with small factories being set up in France and Germany. But cigar smoking didn't really take off in France and Britain until after the Peninsular War (1806-12) against Napoleon, when returning British and French veterans spread the habit they had learned while serving in Spain. By this time the pipe had been replaced by snuff as the main way of taking tobacco, and cigars now became the fashionable way of smoking it. Production of segars, as they were known, began in Britain in 1820, and in 1821 an Act of Parliament was needed to set out regulations governing production. Because of a new import tax, foreign cigars in Britain were already regarded as a luxury item.
Soon there was a demand for higher-quality cigars in Europe, and the Sevillas, as Spanish cigars were called, were superseded by those from Cuba (then a Spanish colony), not least as the result of a decree by King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1821, encouraging the production of Cuban cigars, a Spanish state monopoly. Cigar smoking became such a widespread custom in Britain and France that smoking cars became a feature of European trains, and the smoking room was introduced in clubs and hotels. The habit even influenced clothing, as seen with the introduction of the smoking jacket. In France, tuxedos are still referred to as le smoking. By the end of the 19th century, the after-dinner cigar, with port or brandy, was a firmly established tradition. It was given an added boost by the fact that the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), a leader of fashion, was a devotee, much to the chagrin of his mother, Queen Victoria, who was not amused by the habit.
Cigar smoking didn't really take off in the United States until the time of the Civil War (although John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, was a confirmed cigar smoker at the beginning of the century; later, President Ulysses Grant was also to become a devotee) with the most expensive domestic cigars, made with Cuban tobacco, called clear Havanas. The name Havana, by now, had become a generic term. Some of the best-known domestic cigars came from the factory at Conestoga, Pennsylvania, where the long "stogie" cigar was made. By the late 19th century, the cigar had become a status symbol in the United States, and branding became important. Thus, there was Henry Clay, for instance, named after the Senator. A tax reduction in the 1870s made the cigar even more popular and widely available, and encouraged domestic production. By 1919, Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's Vice President was able to say in the Senate, "What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar," an ambition not to be achieved until almost 40 years later when new methods of cigar production allowed truly cheap cigars to be made by machine. Cigar sales in the united States have, however, declined over the last 20 years from 9 billion cigars (of all types) in 1970, to 2 billion today.
Machine production of cigars wasn't introduced until the 1920s (in Cuba, the Por Larranaga firm was the first to attempt it, and handmade production in the United States fell from 90 percent in 1924, to a mere 2 percent by the end of the 1950s.
It was a different story in Cuba, where the cigar became a national symbol. Cuban peasants started becoming Vegueros, tobacco growers, from the 16th century onward, waging a constant battle against the big landowners as exports of the crop grew. Some of them became tenant farmers or sharecroppers; others were forced to find new land to farm, opening up areas such as Pinar del Rio and Oriente.
By the mid-19th century, by which time there was free trade in tobacco, there were 9,500 plantations, and factories in Havana and other cities sprang up (at one stage, there were as many as 1,300, though there were only around 120 by the beginning of the 20th century), and cigar production became a fully fledged industry. Export was mainly to the United States until tariff barriers were put up in 1857. During the same period, brand and size differentiation began, and the cigar box and band were introduced.
As the industry grew, the cigar makers became the core of the Cuban industrial working class, and a unique institution was set up in 1865, which lasts to this day: the reading of literary, political, and other texts, including the works of Zola, Dumas, and Victor Hugo, to the rollers by fellow workers. This was to alleviate the boredom, and help the cause of worker education. During the last quarter of the 19th century, faced with the growing political upheaval caused by the struggle for independence from Spain, many cigar makers emigrated to the United States or nearby islands like Jamaica, where they set up cigar industries in towns like Tampa, Key West, and Kingston.
These Cubans abroad were instrumental in funding the revolt against Spain, led in 1895 by Jose Marti, the Cuban national hero, and later the increasingly politicized cigar workers in Cuba were to take an important part in national life. Marti's order for the uprising was, symbolically, sent from Key West to Cuba inside a cigar. Cigar workers continued at the center of political consciousness after Fidel Castro's revolution against General Batista in 1959. After Castro started to nationalize Cuban and foreign assets, the United States embargo on Cuba, imposed in 1962, meant that Havana cigars could no longer be legally imported into the United States, except in small quantities for personal use. The cigar industry much of which had been American-owned was nationalized along with everything else and put under the control of the state monopoly, Cuba tabaco.
Many of the dispossessed cigar factory owners such as the Palicio, Cifuentes, and Menendez families fled abroad, determined to start production up again, often using the same brand names they had owned in Cuba. As a result, cigars called Romeo Y Julieta, H. Upmann, and Partagas are made in the Dominican Republic; La Gloria Cubana in Miami; Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey in Honduras; and Sancho Panza in Mexico. In the case of Montecruz cigars, the name was slightly changed from the original Montecristo, and they were originally made in the Canary Islands, though they are now manufactured in the Dominican Republic. These brands using Cuban names usually bear no relation in terms of flavor to their Havana counterparts, however well made they may be. Entirely new brands, too, such as Don Miguel, Don Diego, and Montesino were also set up. After two decades of investment by both local and American companies, the Dominican Republic has seen rapid growth in its cigar industry during the 1990s. More than any other country, it has benefited from the explosion of American consumer enthusiasm for handmade cigars touched off by the launch of Cigar Aficionado magazine in September 1992.
At the start of the decade, sales from the Dominican Republic to the United States had been expanding at a rate of around 5 percent per year. This leapt to 18 percent in 1993 when 55 million handmade cigars were shipped, accounting for just over half of all the handmade cigars imported into the United States. In 1994 growth continued, adding another 20 percent overall, with some factories claiming increases of nearly 40 percent. The greatest problem facing the Dominican Republican manufacturers today appears to be finding enough tobaccos of quality for handmade cigars.
The early 1990s have been less kind to Cuba. In the two years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, half of the island's gross domestic product evaporated. The cigar industry suffered less than most because its essential raw material, tobacco, is all grown on the island. Nonetheless, shortages of fertilizers, packaging materials, and even such mundane items as string, all of which had come from the former Eastern bloc, took their toll.
The weather played its part, too. Unseasonal rains in the Vuelta Abajo constrained the 1991 and 1992 harvests. Then the great storm of March 1993, which ended up depositing ten feet of snow on New York City, started life wreaking havoc in the Partido wrapper-growing region. Production of Havanas, which had topped 80 million in 1990, fell to around 50 million by 1994. If cigar enthusiasts around the world have been forced to search hard for their preferred Havana, their difficulties pale in comparison alongside the trials of their Cuban counterparts. Domestic cigar production tumbled by well over half from a remarkable figure of 280 million in 1990, and stringent rationing was introduced.
Such changes of fortune are nothing new to Cuba's hardy population. Just after the revolution, cigar exports dropped to 30 million.
Havanos SA, the company which recently took over most of the marketing responsibilities for Havanas from the state-owned Cubatabaco, has arranged hard currency deals with its international partners to supply materials for the crops from 1995 onward.
There can be few symbols of capitalism and plutocracy more potent than the cigar. Tycoons rarely seem happier, or more prosperous, than when pictured puffing a large Havana. It says: power, privilege, prestige, and, above all, expense. But the irony, of course, is that Havana cigars are produced in one of the world's few remaining bastions of communism.
It would be quite wrong to give the impression that the growing of cigar tobacco and the production of cigars is limited to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Nearby Jamaica has had its own industry for over a century, and several Central American countries like Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua enjoy traditions of cigar making that go back much further. Ecuador now produces a good-quality wrapper, oddly known as Ecuador/Connecticut, and Brazil brings its own unique flavor and style to the creation of cigars. Further afield, the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra have time-honored links with the cigar makers of the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, as do the Philippines with Spain. Africa's contribution comes from Cameroon, in the form of some of the most sought-after, rich, dark wrappers in the world.