Women Cigarmakers 1887

“Fair Cigar Fabricators: Women Far Superior to Men

in Their Delicacy of Touch and Dexterity” in

St. Paul Daily Globe November 14, 1887, page 2. *

or “Why not to trust early newspaper articles,”

Text and illustration © Tony Hyman, All rights reserved

Uploaded October 19, 2012; updated 03-18-19


The life of a female worker in a Fabrica de Tabacos [1] is laborious and not very well paid, but it is cheery [2]. Two millions of pounds of tobacco are on an average manipulated in a factory employing, say, 4,000 hands [3].

        A dextrous female operative may make in a day from ten to twelve atodos [4] or bundles, each containing fifty cigars [5], and it is questionable whether her average stipend exceeds the Spanish equivalent of one shilling and sixpence a day [6]. Elder women are employed in making, at somewhat higher wages, a very fine rappee snuff called tabaco de trailes, or monk's mixture, which is mixed with almagra, a red earth brought from the vicinity of Carthagena [7]. It is not alone in the great cities of the peninsula [8] that the cigar-making industry gives employment to crowds of women, for the most part young, says a London paper. 

It may be mentioned incidentally that the Spanish cigarreras [9] are a very healthy race, and enjoy a remarkable immunity from febrile maladies. In the city of New York alone it is estimated that there are 20,000 cigarmakers [10], a large proportion of whom are women [11]; and it is a noteworthy fact that the industry is almost wholly native, [12] cigarmakers by trade forming but a tiny quota in the great army of immigrants from Europe landed in the course of every year on the shores of the United States. 

Possibly the German cigarmakers can find as much work as they want at Bremen, at Hamburg, and at the East end of London. In the Philippine islands the ladies have decidedly the best of it in comparison with the ruder sex as cigarmakers, there being at Manilla [13] a cheroot [13b] factory employing 7,000 females as against only 1,200 male artificers, while at Cavite there are 5,000 and at Malabon 2,000 cigar workers, the great majority of whom are women. 

Negresses, mulattos and quadroons are also extensively employed in the cigar factories of Havana [14]. Formerly they suffered keenly from the competition of the Chinese coolies [15], who at present, to the exclusion of female labor, are the chief fabricators of cigars at San Francisco [16]; but in the historic factories of Havana the prime brands of cigars are always finished by white men. Otherwise the dexterity and delicacy of touch of the female hand have marked its owner as specially fit for the craft of cigar-rolling and covering. [17] In the application of the touch of gum at the tip, on the proper disposition of which the comfortable smoking of the weed depends, woman is said to be sometimes excelled by her arrogant rival and tyrant. It is difficult, however, to find a civilized country in which prodigious numbers of women do not habitually earn a livelihood by working in tobacco or cigar factories, not because their labor can lie cheaply [18]obtained but because they stem to have a special aptitude for carrying out the processes employed. 


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*annotations by Tony  Hyman

[1] Spanish “cigar factory.” Spanglish on US labels “made of tobacco.”

[2] Unique conclusion.

[3] There weren’t any this large in the U.S., an odd size for the author to use.

[4] Word not in standard old glossaries; a bundle of 50 is a media rueda, or “half wheel,” a rueda of 100 being the standard unit. 

[5] 500 to 600 cigars a day is prodigious output unless the women are working in 3-person teams, two bunch makers and one roller.

[6] Article was found in the St. Paul Daily Globe, but “shilling and sixpence” says it’s source was England.

[7] In Spain, Colombia or Ohio? In the U.S., it was illegal to make cigars and snuff in the same factory.

[8] Peninsula? Great cities?

[9] Cigarette maker; cigar maker, which the author means, is a torcedor.

[10] 1,800+ factories were licensed to make cigars in Manhattan that year, 20 of which employed 500 or more people, mostly men.

[11] Not known; few  small factories hired women other than family due to NYC regulations requiring separate toilet facilities.

[12] Not consistent with other data for the U.S.

[13] Only the King’s factory could match these sizes. No reference to these huge factories has been found outside this article. Info on cigar making in the Philippines and Mexico is lacking in English.

Information welcome.

[13b] Does the author actually mean cheroot? Or  as slang meaning cigar?

[14] In general the larger  and more mechanized a factory became the more likely to hire women.

[15] Not in export cigar factories in Cuba, though women were found in rural factories supplying locals.

[16] True for a while in Cali-fornia. See White Labor.

The Cigar Maker’s Union would not accept women.

[17] Women made cigars in mould-work factories in all large cities as well as small towns throughout the Mid-west and Northeast. Most cigar making machinery was run by women 16-25 who had the dexterity to operate quickly.

[18] Cigar rollers were always paid piece rates. Women, in general, could work flexi-hours, enabling them to get kids off to school, husbands to work, or take care of morning farm chores before coming to work. In general, cigar making women were never unionized and were paid roughly half their male counterparts.