Chinese Cigar Factories

in San Francisco, 1897

A National Cigar History Museum Feature

© Tony Hyman

Included courtesy of Jerry Petrone, who found and sent me

the original article by Lucy Byrd which appeared in

The San Francisco Call, October 3, 1897 (page 18).

Minor grammatical and format changes have been

made to improve readability for the modern reader.


"What you want?"

Chuy Fong inquires of the law. The flash of a silver star answers this question powerfully in Chinatown. Fong’s scowl at once becomes a hideous, mechanical smile; his claw-like hands are stretched out for an American handshake and lie for an instant in yours, passive, inert and as offensive as the cold hands of a bony corpse. Chinese policy makes an obeisance to American law, but there is hatred in it, and a threat.

At the last meeting of the Board of Health Dr. Henry H. Hart presented a startling communication concerning the abuses of the laws of sanitation in the Chinese cigar factories. He knew whereof he was speaking, for, in company with Bath and Laundry Inspector Tobin, he had spent a good part of three weeks investigating these places.

In his report to the Board of Health, he said, among other things:

“While I was tolerably acquainted with their condition prior to my inspection. I had little realized what a source of contagion — absolute defiance of health and sanitation— would unfold itself as my researches proceeded. I can hardly believe that in a city such as San Francisco considers herself to be, in a commonwealth composed of the most intelligent citizens to be found in any American community; such a mass of living disease, zealously cultured and propagated, can exist in our midst. When one considers the great number of consumptive and syphilitic help engaged in the manufacture of so-called Cuban and Key West cigars, and then actually sees these people, in the last stages of their disease, biting off the stems of cigars to improve their appearance, one stops again to wonder under what kind of a social system we are living and to what mercy some of our smoking population owe their salvation from two of the most dreaded diseases known to mankind.”

During that meeting, the Board of Health appointed William H. Tobin as inspector of Chinese cigar factories, giving him full authority to act in the premises. The next day, bright and early, I started with Inspector Tobin to see for The Call's readers just how the heathen made cigars.

I laughed at Mr. Tobin when he told me that Chinese cigars were sold at the best cigar-stands in town. Surely only opium fiends, those uncanny, white, shivering specters, more separated from their race than the dead in their tombs, people who skulk around the dirtiest, darkest alleys of Chinatown at night like evil birds to disappear when daylight come, and the Chinaman himself, who minds not his own dirt, would smoke the Chinatown cigar. But I lived to learn and not to laugh, but to pray that I may be given the power to show the thing that I saw and to impress as I was impressed.

We began our inspection on Pacific street, near Bartlett alley. “Cigar factory,” in little yellow, crooked letters, was on a very narrow, very low and very dirty glass door. Without knocking, or as much as saying "by your leave," we went in. The door opened into a small room, which was evidently the office of the establishment. Two sleepy-looking Chinamen were sitting upon stools, one leaning against a counter, which was simply an overgrown bench, and the other against the wall. They were both smoking long-stemmed pipes with very small bowls. One held a sore-eyed sick cat in his arms. They stared at us without moving, there was no expression in their faces to indicate that they saw us. They seemed, in fact, to look through us and way beyond us and still to be gazing into vacancy.

"They are both opium fiends," said Mr. Tobin, "and they haven't yet recovered from the effect of their last night's smoke."

We passed on into a dark room from which a foul odor seemed to ooze. The gas was burning, but so low that the feeble light failed to cast even a shadow. Perhaps its light couldn't penetrate the smell that dwelt there with it. Mr. Tobin turned on other lights, but they were all pale and sickly. The floor was covered with wet leaf tobacco, It had been placed there to dry, if dry it could. 

In one corner was a bed made of boards and without a mattress. A filthy blanket had been kicked aside. Some wooden cigar molds, which are two heavy pieces of boards fastened together, having indentations on the inside of each the shape of a cigar, had evidently been used for pillows upon which some luxuriant Celestial had rested a head full of opium visions. 

There were dirty rags and unclean clothing scattered around. Bits of dried meat hung on the walls. The room was damp and greasy, the floor, where there was no tobacco, and the walls being slimy to the touch. Going out of the room we came to a pair of perpendicular stairs, built like a step-ladder. These led to a hole in the ceiling. Through this hole we reached the factory proper.

There were three long tables in this room and five or six Chinamen sitting at each table. In front of each was a heap of tobacco, which he was rolling into cigars. The tobacco fell in quantities to the floor. It was early in the morning and the fiends and consumptives were coughing their hardest. Expectoration fell on the floor on and among the tobacco there. One of the Chinamen told us that they swept the tobacco from the floor twice a day and used it again in the manufacture of cheaper cigars. Just imagine how many thousands of bacilli are gathered up in this tobacco!

Dr. Hart says: "Smokers of these cigars at each indrawn breath inhale a sufficient number of bacilli to cause a rapid spread of consumption or to deposit in the system the germs of leprosy, cancer and other diseases."

Some of the laborers only made the filling and the others wrapped them. The fillings were sometimes pressed in cigar molds. The wrappers rolled the big uninjured leaves around the filling. In front of each wrapper was a little dish of paste. Salt-cellars, butter-chips, little medicine jars, etc., were used These were very dirty; in some instances the paste had turned green and was in a state of fermentation. Sometimes there were two or three flies in a dish as well as other more mysterious foreign matter. The leaf was fastened down with this paste.

The point of the cigar which is held in the mouth requires more manipulation than all the rest. It was rolled, and pinched, and pasted by slender, deft and dirty fingers. There is at the end of the cigar generally a piece of the tobacco left over; the workers are supplied with sharp knives with which to cut this away, but one fat old Chinaman, with thick inflamed lips and a sore face, put the cigars into his mouth, bit off the leaf and then rolled the cigar around, wetting it thoroughly, bringing it out beautifully finished. We saw the same thing done in other factories. In fact all Chinese cigar factories are much alike, part of them being worse than the others.

Into several places on Pacific street we went. In one a coop full of chickens rested beside the tobacco, which was drying on the floor. Close by, near a door at the back of the room, was a sink full of chicken's feet and decaying vegetables. A big pink rat without any hair on him — a wet rat at that— stalked about in it without fear. He seemed to be at home and quite chummy with the Chinese. The Chinamen who owned the chickens was a jolly old pauper, his clothes torn and greasy, his old felt hat full of boles, and he wore no stockings. He sat in the doorway picking a goose for the sake of the feathers, which he sold downtown.

In one factory the proprietor was out of sight and we went on an exploring expedition without his assistance. We stumbled upon "my lady's chamber." In here was a Chinese woman, a really handsome Chinaman and a visiting Chinaman. The men went out, leaving the little woman, who sat in a defiant attitude on her wooden bed beside an opium tray.

The Chinamen stood near by, talking excitedly. They looked so fierce I became frightened. Finally the good-looking fellow said haughtily and in perfect English:

"Come out. That is my little girl's room."

"I beg your pardon. It was a mistake," said Mr. Tobin as he showed his star.

What miracles this star performs. The surly faces changed; the Chinese smiled; the handshake was at once offered.

One factory, having its office on Dupont street, has underground workrooms. Nothing human could exist there but Chinese. Through a small hole in the floor you climb down a ladder into a damp, dark excavation that there is no possible way of ventilating excepting through the little hole which forms the entrance. The underground room is not large, yet in it are twenty-five or thirty workmen.

There is no gaslight there. The cigar-makers work by candle light mostly. Some of them have glasses full of oil in which two or three tapers float. I was there only a minute or two and I thought I would faint before I managed to climb back into the air. It seemed good and fresh in the room above, though the stench there had sickened me before I had gone below and struck a worse stratum of the Chinese style of ventilation.

There are between three and four hundred cigar factories in Chinatown. [If this figure is correct, more than half of them, perhaps nearly all, were  in violation of Federal tax laws governing cigar factories, as only 200 total cigar factories were licensed in San] They are scattered all over, in every street and alley. I did not visit them all. I saw about twenty-five. Mr. Tobin said there were some places that were so utterly bad that he would not take a woman into them. As it was I saw consumptives and workmen with horrible skin diseases side by side engaged in all the operations necessary to the final completion of the cigar. 

I saw them spraying tobacco leaves with water held in their mouths, just as Chinese laundrymen sprayed clothes till the Board of Health stopped them. I saw quantities of refuse tobacco soaking in water in dirty barrels, the tobacco to be used, the Chinamen candidly told us, to color light tobacco leaves.

In every one of these factories imitations of the best imported and domestic cigars are made. There is not a sign on any cigar-box to indicate that they are made in Chinatown. The law compels every manufacturer to print on the bottom of each box the number of his factory and district. 

Of course all San Francisco factories are in the first district, but how few smokers know anything about the numbers of the factories. I think I may safely say that there is not a man in San Francisco outside of the revenue officers who can locate the different factories by their numbers. Sometimes the numbers on the boxes are so small that they blur and then there is no way of telling where they came from. [This too was a violation of Federal tax laws which specified the font size and]

Thoroughly sick of Chinatown, I asked Mr. Tobin to take me to some white factories. We went first to a place on Front street. It has an Italian name and is a large, well-known institution. I hadn't an idea I'd see a Chinaman there. Imagine my surprise when I saw nothing else. The boss is quite a high-toned Chinaman. He has a little Chinese wife who was brought up in a mining town in California, and who has American friends. She speaks English well and will not live in Chinatown. She doesn't like dirt, and Chinatown makes her sick, she says, so she lives in the factory.

There are dirtier factories in Chinatown, but there was tobacco on the floor here, and the spitting and coughing went on just the same.

A very prominent cigar firm on Market street, which poses as cigar manufacturers, has its cigars made in this factory. There is one little room full of cigar boxes with the pictures of the two partners on one end of each box. There is a big sign up in this room with their names on it. This is where the revenue officials collect taxes from these manufacturers. [Throughout history it has been common practice for both cigar companies and cigar manufacturers to buy part or all of their stock]

We went to another place on Front street, which also bears an Italian name— I believe the Italian who owned the name has been dead these many years. The place is run by Chinamen altogether, with a Chinese family living there.

On Clay street we visited a factory with a good American name. We found the proprietor and a girl stenographer in the outer office. In the factory there were none but Chinamen. A Chinaman who appeared to be in the last stages of consumption had the final handling of the cigars. He sorted them and labeled them. [Probably means banded]

On Battery street there is a factory with a large downstairs salesroom. The boxes are artistically and showily arranged about the walls and in the middle of the room. A pretty little stenographer sits in the glass office. How nice and neat it all seems. There isn't even the smell of a Chinaman about. I went into ecstasies over it, and mounted the stairs, at the back of the room, rapidly. 

A pretty girl sat just at the head of the stairs. She was putting the labels, the little paper rings, around the cigars. She had a nimble, dainty way of handling them that made one almost long for a smoke. Such cigars would bring fantastic reveries even to one gouty. The pretty picture was spoiled, as I glanced down a long room and saw the familiar sight— rows and rows of Chinamen, pressing and biting, coughing and spitting.

There are about 500 factories, large and small, Chinese and American, in San Francisco. [The Federal government only licensed 200 cigar factories in San] They all, with the exception of some small ones, employ Chinamen. There are none but white people working in at least two factories. 

All the factories employ Chinese. This means food for thousands of Chinamen, while our own people have been unemployed and last winter many were on the verge of starving.

Now cigar manufacturers can say that there are few white cigar-makers and that they do not want to employ green hands If there were plenty of white cigar-makers, it seems to me our white manufacturers might find it unhealthy to employ Chinese.

Inspector Tobin promises a general cleaning up in Chinatown and hopes to teach the heathen a few lessons in sanitation and I hope he will. 

--Lucy Byrd. 


The way in which the Chinese make cigars has been exploited. People shudder at the thought of smoking cigars that leprous fingers may have rolled or upon which leprous lips may have placed a finishing touch. But such cigars are smoked by people who never suspect it, because they are sold as the product of white labor.