“If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go” – Mark Twain
The Popularity of Tobacco Since the Beginning of America’s History
Tobacco has been popular since the beginning of its cultivation. Tobacco was first used by the natives of the Americas pre-Columbus. Native Americans grew and mastered the product to be used for ceremonial purposes, and would smoke cylindrical bundles of tobacco leaves wrapped in dried palm or corn husks. A ceramic pot found in Guatemala that dates as far back as the 10th century is marked with an illustration of a Mayan smoking tobacco leaves bound up with string. The term cigar may have actually originated from the Mayans, whose term for smoking was sikar. Once Christopher Columbus sailed over to the Americas in 1492 he “discovered” tobacco, saw it’s potential as both a commodity and a source of income, and brought it back with him to Europe. In the mid-16th century adventurers and diplomats popularized its use and made it more mainstream, made most famous by Jean Nicot from France, who nicotine is named after. Jean Nicot first began experimenting with tobacco as a cure for headaches, and gave a sample to Catherine de Medici who famously suffered from chronic migraines. When it effective relieved her headaches tobacco became increasingly popular among the European aristocracy, and it became known as a medical herb with mysterious powers. At the time all tobacco had to be imported from Spain, which made tobacco extremely expensive. As a result, Englishmen began seeking out a way to grow it themselves, and in 1612 tobacco was successfully cultivated for the first time in the New World in Virginia. It took only seven years for the crop to become the colony’s largest export, and ultimately the success and popularity of tobacco led to an increased demand for slave labor in North America.
The Rise of Cigars
Tobacco was not so popular with everyone. King James the First banned tobacco, saying that smoking it was “a custom loathsome to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke in the pit that is bottomless.” However, this prohibition only led to the smuggling of tobacco and the invention of rules to get around the law.
Farmers in Connecticut, who had been growing tobacco since they got to the New World and had been introduced to the crop by Native Americans, began to attempt to produce Cuban tobacco in order to manufacture it into cigars. As cigars became more in demand, more and more cigar factories were built, building an empire. By 1880 every state in the union had a cigar factory other than Montana and Idaho, which reflected the high demand.
The Golden Age of the Cigar
The period around the civil war could be considered the “golden age” for cigars in the United States as a result of their intense popularity and the number of cigars sold. By 1898 the number of cigars consumed in the US every year was greater than 4 billion, and by 1913 the domestic output of cigars weighed 266,678 tons. In 1920 the number of cigars sold was over 7 billion. During this period one writer even stated “The weight of the tobacco consumed in the US in a year is equal to the weight of the entire and combined populations of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, and the District of Columbia.” Cigars were everywhere, and whoever wished to smoke a cigar could easily find a flavor they liked at a price they could afford. Cigars became a tool of relaxation, similar to a stiff drink after a long day, and were highly coveted as such. Cigars were simultaneously luxurious and available to the common man, allowing for a large customer base. The cigar boom was partly due to their affordability, but they were also an accessory for gentlemen like King Edward VII who famously denounced the smoke-free policies of Queen Victoria. Cigar shops expanded and opened new ones, developing new operations and creating new brands. The success of cigar companies attracted many workers to the industry, as well as the development of new companies which brought innovation. Many Cuban cigar manufacturers migrated to Florida, and subsequently Tampa became known as “Cigar City” by the early 20th century.
The Infamous Cuban Cigar
Cuban’s climate and fruitful soil made it possible for all three types of tobacco leaves used in a cigar to be grown and harvested. Thus the wrapper, filler, and binder were all being produced locally in Cuba and then shipped and distributed all over the world. In the 17th century Cuba was a colony of Spain, and the Spanish worked to control the market by mandating that all tobacco grown for export be registered in Seville and by forbidding Cuban tobacco growers to sell the crop to anyone but them. This monopoly last until 1817, and by then cigars were rapidly gaining popularity all over the world, especially the Cuban variety.
The (Momentary) Downfall of the Cigar
Cigar smoking stayed consistently popular until 1959 when Fidel Castro led a coup of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Cuba suddenly became aligned with the communists which, as a result of the red scare, made them an enemy of the US. This fear only heightened and worsened after the Bay of Pigs and Castro’s decision to align with the Soviets. Over a year later the alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, pushing the world to the brink of a nuclear war. In retaliation against Castro, President John F. Kennedy issued an economic embargo. Incidentally, it is well known that Kennedy ensured that he would still have a plentiful selection of his favorite Cuban cigars. This embargo on all imports of Cuban cigars has remained in effect for decades, but only led to growth in cigar manufacturing in alternate countries such as the Dominican Republic and Honduras. On the other hand, this also led to a downward spiral in American consumption of cigars, with a drop by more than 66% between the mid-1960s and early 1990s (according to the US department of Agriculture). By the early 1900s, sales had been dropping for 30 years, cigar customers were aging, and anti-tobacco campaigns dissuaded new customers. Imports of premium cigars decreased 2.9 percent between 1990 and 1991 alone. Stanford Newman wrote “One of [my relatives] compared the cigar business to the buggy whip business. A dying industry with no future.” Little did he know that a new cigar boom was about to begin.
The Magazine that Changed Everything
The appearance of a magazine called the Cigar Aficionado is attributed to the regrowth of the cigar industry. After the first publication came out in 1992, the demand for premium cigars began to rise again. Cigar imports rose by 3.7 percent in 1992, but soared to an astounding 66.7 percent in 1996. Smoke shops became once again filled with customers, cigar bars opened, and Cigar Aficionado’s increasing popularity brought cigar lovers all over the world out of the woodwork. The magazine mandated what the best cigar brands, shops, and flavors were, changing the market and making certain cigars more popular than others. Wall Street took an interest in cigars, and 6 cigars companies went public in 1996. By 1996 there were more than 50 million cigars on back order, and the most popular brands such as Arturo Fuente and La Gloria Cubana became impossible to find. It wasn’t until 1997 that the cigar industry was able to catch up to the demand for cigars. However, around this time imports dipped as the market tried to absorb all the cigars that had been produced in the final days of the cigar boom, and Wall Street lost interested in the cigar industry. Cigar imports decreased heavily between 1997 and 2000. This is not to say that the cigar industry was down again for long – by 2001 they began to increase again and by 2011 imports increased by an average of 6 percent.
In current times, cigar companies concerns are not who will buy their product, but rather if their industry will be able to hold with all the government over regulation and taxes.
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