New York City Cigarmakers, 1887

Exclusive Cubans and Spaniards; Nimble Germans and Bohemians

A National Cigar History Museum Reprint

New York Sun via the Kirksvillke, MO, Weekly Graphic

with commentary added in blue 

© Tony Hyman

Uploaded  October 9, 2010


There are two classes of cigar-makers in New York, those who do what is called Spanish work and those who work with domestic tobaccos. The men who are on Spanish work are (typically, but not exclusively) Cubans and Spaniards, some seven hundred in all (where does this number come from? In New York City there were individual factories that hired more than 700 people; Spanish work factories were all over the city and ranged in size from one-man shops to establishments hiring hundreds). They object to having any body else in their shops, and if a cigarmaker of another nationality should get a job there they would make it so unpleasant for him that he would leave (This ethnic-nationality friction was a major source of problems but only in only a few factories in New York, Philadelphia, Key West, New Orleans and, more so than elsewhere, Tampa). In this they are sustained by their employers, who are Cubans or Spaniards themselves, and believe that Cubans and Spaniards are the only people who know how to make the best cigars. They are born with a cigar in their mouths, and they die with a cigarette between their teeth. (An interesting observation, given that domestic cigarettes were just beginning their ultimate de-throning of the cigar as smoke of choice in the United States. It reflects the Cuban roots of whomever created that saying as cigarettes had been popular in Cuba for decades).

The only tobacco used in some of the Spanish workshops is imported, while others use both Havana and Key West tobacco, and make a grade of Key West cigars in which there is a fair amount of domestic tobacco, more than they acknowledge. All their cigars are high priced, and the men earn on the average twice as much a thousand as is paid to other cigarmakers. It is a common thing for them to be paid $30 and $35 a thousand (the wholesale price for nickel cigars), and a cigarmaker who is quick enough to turn out a thousand of high grade cigars in a week makes good wages. (Cigarmakers working on all-hand-work cheap cigars could make half again as many: a three-person team using molds would make even more-per-person but be paid substantially less. One female team-worker (most were of that gender) reported to me that she was paid only $1.50/1000 cigars during the Depression when making the lowest grade (then retailing at 2/5¢).

They have grades of cigars for which $60 and more is paid a thousand. A thousand of such cigars are worth several hundred dollars, and they are not often manufactured. The high prices paid make the Cuban cigarmakers regard themselves as the aristocrats of the trade, though there is no such difference in wages as the scale of prices per thousand would seem to show. A good cigarmaker can make two thousand $9.50 cigars while a Cuban is making one thousand $17 or $20 cigars. (Greater care is required and less waste is tolerated when working with the highest grades of Cuban, Sumatran or Philippine tobacco.)

There is jealousy and rivalry in the Cuban shops among the rapid cigarmakers. In every shop there are two or three who regard themselves as the best men. They have contests, and the one who wins is pitted against the best men of other shops. (“Best” means high output of perfectly formed cigars.)

Pericho Bettancourt has been regarded as the best man for some time, though there are others who dispute the title. On good work he could make $40 a week and more if he kept at it steadily, and it is even said of him that he could make a thousand $60 cigars in a week. These are wages that no maker of cheap cigars could ever make, as he would have to turn out a thousand cigars a day to do it.

The bulk of the cigarmakers are Germans and Bohemians, who turn out cigars from $5 a thousand to $21. These are the two extremes of ordinary trade, though there are tenement house cigars made as low as $4, and an occasional order runs up to $30 or more. (The average cigar cost more in 1887 than it did in 1937).

No union man makes cigars under $7 a thousand, and that is the limit of price in a union shop, but there are a few non-union shops that go lower. (f they get caught they got sanctioned by the Union. A second offense, or a hard-nosed Local, could result in expulsion from the Union. Names of every offender were printed in the Official Bulletin.) None of these cigars are made of imported tobacco, though many have Sumatra wrappers or Havana fillers.

A manufacturer tries to introduce some imported tobacco, no matter what the quality or character, that he may call his cigars imported, though millions of cigars are marked imported where not a bit of the tobacco ever breathed salt air before it reached New York. (Marking cigars as “Havana” was very common fraud. Tens of thousands of cigar brands routinely used the word on their labels. Every label printer offered labels, edging, bands and tags emblazoned with the word. Inexperienced eBay sellers today frequently call these decorated domestics Cuban cigar boxes.) It is better to smoke a cigar made throughout of good domestic tobacco than of poor imported, though there are not many smokers who appreciate the truth of this.

There is more difference between cigarmakers than between smokers. A $6 cigarmaker could could no more make a $30 cigar than a man who had never touched a piece of tobacco before could make a $6 cigar. In the first place he would not know how to hold the tobacco. A skilled cigarmaker takes up his filler, binder and wrapper differently from an unskilled cigarmaker, and it takes years to learn how to do it. (True Spanish-style cigars were made without binder leaves and required great dexterity and practice.

To become a good cigarmaker a man must begin as a boy, when his fingers are supple, and some men can not learn even then. (The Cigarmaker’s International Union required a three-year apprenticeship before they were accredited as a journeyman worker and full time member.

Immigrant house-wives and American farm girls could be taught to  make a decent cigar within two or three months using molds, bunch makers, and suction tables. Cigar makers preferred young girls 15 to 20, believing them to be the most teachable and to have the most nimble fingers.) Foreigners take more naturally to it than American boys. (This seemed to be the case; it would be better said that immigrants took to producing hand made cigars because they were experienced in their home countries. Cigars were made in England, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, the German principalities, Austria, Russia, the Balkans, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and elsewhere.) An American tends to make cigars by machinery, and will not take the patient care it requires to make the point taper, the belly gradually swell, and the beautiful curves that a fine cigar shows. (Factory owners didn’t want employees to waste their time learning all-hand techniques. Molds were adopted almost immediately because they allowed “newbies” to make more than 3,000 shapes, work faster with less training, and get paid less per unit.)

He thinks that so long as the tobacco all gets there, sticks

together and can be smoked, that his work is done. That may be the reason that the cream of the cigarmaking work is done by foreigners whose ancestors made cigars and smoked them for generations before. 


Kirksville, Missouri, Weekly Graphic, October 28, 1887,

as originally reported in the New York Sun

Commentary text in blue by Tony Hyman