Cuban Smokers, 1884

A National Cigar History Museum Exclusive 

© Tony Hyman

Uploaded on January 1, 2011


Habana, Cuba,

the largest, most cultured and cosmopolitan city in North America,”

proclaimed many a traveler and tourist in the 1850’s and 60’s. 

    The entire island of Cuba smokes like a fire of damp wood. The only places in which the smoking is not constant are the churches and the beds. Nice women are said not to smoke, and probably do not, but you see women in the very nicest houses smoking, sometimes openly and sometimes furtively. To be sure, they are [illegible], but it is more reasonable to believe that that is why you see them than to suppose that they begin to smoke at forty.

Outside of the nice quarters of town every-body smokes. The old women are to be seen with their lips strained around huge black cigars, and young girls puff away on cigarettes with a grace that fills an American smoker with envy.

     The Spaniards and Cubans of the male sex are smoking whenever they are awake, and, judging from the scenes in the streets, they begin even younger than our children in New York.

     I was seated with the wealth and fashion of Cienfuegos in a little open air theatre, from which the heavy evening dew was kept by a huge sail of canvas stretched from wall to wall. The scene was most strange and beautiful to Northern eyes. The glorious full-orbed women had come in summer silks, with mantillas of white and black lace pinned to their tresses. They sat with their gorgeous great fans waving in unison, now hiding and now disclosing their charming faces, many of which, to my astonishment, were as fair as those of the women of Sweden. 

    Their husbands and lovers were all swarthy and black haired, some of them Adonises in form and feature. Men were clad in the light silks that help to make life delicious in that climate. Men’s clothes give color and beauty to every scene where men are assembled. 

    The first act came to an end and the curtain fell. Crack! Cr-r-r-ra-a-ck! Cr-r-r-r-r-ack! went something loud enough to make me start in my seat. It was as though a part of the house was giving warning that it was about to fall. Every man with one movement had scratched a snapping match across the sandpaper end of a box and was lighting his cigarette or entre Actos cigar. At every mouth there was a flash of flame, and from every flame arose a little cloud of white smoke. As I would later learn, Cubans don’t consider using cigarettes as smoking.


   The description of that particular Cuban cigarette may be accurate, but it does not Describe all. There were  cigarette makers by the thousands if you count all the chinchales (one man factories, literally “bedbugs”).

    It wasn’t unusual for large factories to offer a dozen different cigarette brands, sizes, and blends. Most were made from high quality scraps from the cigar factories though other tobaccos were used.

    Some companies made both cigarettes and cigars (Figaro, Bock, La Diligencia and Cabañas among them).

    The extent to which smoking is indulged in Cuba is beyond belief. The boys in the streets have to remove their cigarettes to ask you to buy their sugar cakes, green coconuts, or lottery tickets, or to let them black your shoes or carry your bundles. The women sitting dozing over their little heaps of fish, fruit, or vegetables have great black butts between their teeth. The conductors in the railway cars exchange cigarettes with passengers. The priests smoke. Negro laborers emit fumes like furnaces over their work. Cuban gentlemen smoke as they wait for their food in restaurants, then light up again after eating, perhaps again before they leave the tables.

    A Cuban can light his cigarette gracefully in a hurricane. They light cigarettes as they dash along on horseback, while they manage boats in a gale of wind in the harbors, as they walk in the windy streets, and as they sit in the drafty open houses; and as they don’t make an effort over it. They simply strike a light whenever they feel like it, without any preparation or interruption.

Cubans can light a cigar

in a hurricane

    An American can have great difficulty finding a Cuban cigar that suits him. Those on sale are all as black as the quintessence of coal tar. The Colorado Claro (light reddish brown), which is the usual color smoked in New York, is not to be had in Cuba -- at least, I could not find it in Havana, Mantanzas, Colon, Cienfuegos and Santiago. Other Americans echoed the same complaint. 

    The light cigars go to England. The average cigar on sale in Cuba is only fit to smoke after a hearty meal. Smoked on an empty stomach, it strains one’s nerves, makes the brain dizzy, and sets the muscles trembling like watch springs. Then, again, every cigar in Cuba is by no means excellent, and not all Cuban cigars are better than those we make in the United States of Havana fillers and Connecticut wrappers. 

    When in the U.S., if we are assured the cigar we get is a Havana, we believe ourselves to have got a prize. Some brands regularly imported to New York always command the same high price and are bought by gentlemen with the same faith and confidence as they have in Rhenish wines or French brandies. 


    In Cuba the smokers keep posted about the crop each year, and at one time they abandon a leading brand from a plantation that has turned out a poor crop and take to the goods of a plantation that may have had no reputation at all in the past. To be sure it used not to be so. Tobacco grown in the historic Vuelta Abajo was for nearly a century even in quality and extraordinarily good. The world had failed to produce anything to compare to it. Sir Walter Raleigh couldn’t even imagine that the Indian tobacco he exhibited before Queen Bess existed in so far more perfect form in the valley of western Cuba. 

    But the soil got tired, or the planters thought it did. Farm owners began to doctor it with fertilizers. Worst of all, they began to groom it with guano. Guano is all right for the rude potato or the hardy corn stalk, but tobacco is a delicate plant, a sensitive woman among vegetables. It is affected strongly by little things. When guano was put within its reach it grew better, but it drank up the acrid, bitter, strong, harsh essence of the drug, and its leaves, when made into cigars, reeked with the unpleasant taste and odor. 

    The planters came pretty near ruining their gold-producing geese. In years they have not all of them been able to undo the mischief. Now that it has been discovered that fertilizers are not nice to smoke, the planters are not certain what to do. The Vuelta Abajo is not by any means what it used to be, and Cuban gentlemen are loudly complaining that they cannot buy anything like the cigars they once were accustomed to. 

    The situation is serious, but not alarming. Cuba is without a competitor in fine leaf production, and only one-third of the great island is under cultivation. There is plenty more good land there, and the same exquisite care, incessant attention, wide experience, and delicate skill that made the Vuelta Abajo the tobacco garden on the world will do as much for neighboring land when poor Cuba shakes off the misrule that makes her today the most pitiable spectacle the earth beholds.

    In Cuba, if you go to a tobacco shop and ask for cigars in English, you will get cigarettes. A cigar is a tobaco; cigarros are cigarettes. Cigars are exceedingly cheap in Cuba. The famous HENRY CLAYs, which in this country command 30¢, and are not then sure to be genuine, sell in Cuba for $10 a hundred, a dime each. You can get very good cigars for 4¢ or a nickel. The favorites with gentlemen of taste, the great black Brevas, are sold for 6¢ to 8¢ each. 

    These Brevas are certainly delicious on top of a hearty dinner. They are not pretty. They are rough, coarse, badly made in appearance, and are usually twisted a little awry. But, as the Irish say, they have the real stuff in them. Russia, which in all the markets of the world is the most tasteful buyer, demanding the best of everything, manages to get all the best Brevas. America could have them, but America is not a good buyer. She considers the looks of things rather than the quality.    

    They tell the most astonishing stories about cigars in Cuba, investing them with brains, stomachs and nerves. Every Cuban will positively assure you that if you let a cigar get old and dry you run a risk of its having acquired diseases, vices, and bad habits. They say it may get obstinate and smoke crooked; it may have drunk in bad odors and made itself sick. They positively assert that cigars get seasick on the ocean, and in that condition are not fit to smoke. 

    Others believe an ocean voyage greatly improves a cigar. The trip, it is said, purges them;  ten days or two weeks after they have been landed, they are so greatly improved as to be worth half as much again as they were before they went to sea. The consequence is that the Cubans in New York who have cigars sent to them from home are envied by their friends in Cuba, and I heard of at least one case of a man in Havana who has all his cigars sent on voyages up or down the coast and back again before he smokes them or offers them to his friends.

    Of course, every one knows that the same belief exists with regards to brandy, whiskey, rum, and gin. In the mixing houses in Baltimore, Louisville, and the West, where special whiskey brands are made up, the casks are put on racks that move to and fro in rude imitation of the motion of a ship and stored in rooms heated to the temperature of a ship’s hold. The heat is as important as the motion. The effect is to produce the body and flavor of aged liquor without waiting for it to come naturally.

  “You Americans smoke too much when you come here,” said Don Figuerado to me. “You seem to be always lighting a fresh cigar.”

“For Heaven’s sake!” I replied, “You smoke a lot more than any American.”

  “Oh, I smoke very little,” he rejoined, “only four or five good cigars a day. One after my coffee, one after my breakfast, one after my dinner and one or two at night.”

  “And cigarettes?”

  “Oh, very few. Say two packs a day.”

There are nineteen cigarettes in a pack. They are made of black tobacco cut bigger than what we use in pipes. Two Cuban cigarettes are stronger than the average domestic cigar smoked in New York. He inhaled nearly 40 cigarettes a day, but they “didn’t count as smoking.” 

Tastes change. Dark, almost black cigars were very popular in New York City in 1860,

   Cigarettes are sold at two packages for 5¢ in Cuba. The Cubans open the ends, unroll them, and roll them up again. In Susini’s LA HONRADEZ factory the new American and French machinery for making ready-rolled cigarettes has been introduced. The machines turn out 1,500 pretty little cylinders of paper loaded with tobacco every hour. But I did not see any Cuban smoke one. I asked one old-timer  why he didn’t buy machine-made-ready-to-light cigarettes. 

  “Well,” said he, “they will never be popular here. We like to unroll the cigarette and see what it is made of, and we like to roll it up again, so as to be sure it is rolled just right.”

People would smoke themselves into solid mahogany

if it weren’t for this practice.

    It really seems to me a mercy they go through that ritual for Cubans would smoke themselves into solid mahogany if it were not for this practice. The time they take to unroll and roll their cigarettes is the only rest their bodies get while they are awake.

    When walking along the streets of Havana, as you glance into the open houses, you will frequently see in the big, cool hallways a man seated by a little table rolling cigarettes. He will be pleased to have you come in and watch him. He has a heap of small pieces of straw paper and a mound of black, flaky tobacco. His hands twinkle in the rapidity of their movements.

    He wears a strange-looking brass thimble on one finger, and by a poke and a dab with this he folds and presses in the ends of the paper on each cigarette. Thus are the workmen of the cigarette factories scattered all over the city. Each man gets a certain number of sheets of paper and a certain weight of tobacco--sufficient for the manufacture of 3,000 cigarettes a day--the usual product of an active man’s spare time. The paper and the tobacco are weighed before he gets them, and he must bring back cigarettes of exactly that weight. These workmen are the hall porters in the private and business houses, and earn a little extra sum in this manner.

    The highest-priced cigars that I saw in Havana sold wholesale for $50 a hundred. They were about ten inches in length by an inch thick at the fullest part. They were jet black, and very smoothly made. Each one was wrapped in silver foil. The value of them seemed to be in the variety of perfect leaves of the great size required for their manufacture.


Half Cuba’s total cigar output was exported; half never left the island.

Quality was never a certainty when buying any cigar. Big-name brands would like you to believe differently, but in the early to mid 1800s,

when demand exceeded production ability, major brands were sometimes farmed out to chinchales or to the prison.

Cubans were avid players of the lottery.

Cuban women of all social classes were smokers in private, especially of cigarettes. A Cuban woman would be unusual if she displays herself life the Spanish señoras at left.

Street urchins were heavy smokers. The dangers of smoking were the least of their concerns.

Cubans came in all classes; there was some correlation of class and color.

The old days were always better. Right? Each gener-ation says the same thing.

The most important considerations in growing quality leaf are the [1]

right soil and [2] right climate. Most Cuban soil and micro-climate wasn’t suitable for tobacco.

Brevas is the vitola

or frontmark which identifies size and shape of a cigar. Brevas were a small tapered cigar, about 3½” long. The “great black Brevas” mentioned here are a mystery. The words great and Brevas are opposites.

Henry Clay is a famous brand named for the Senator after he visited Cuba in the 1840s.

Every box of cigars made in the US between 1878 and 1916 had Clay’s picture on it.

Do you know where?

The English were world-class counterfeiters of Cuban cigars. Cigars made on the cheap in England were shipped to Cuba in crates, repacked in consumer size boxes and returned to England where they were sold at quadruple their original value. One 1850 expert claimed only three tobac-conists in all London could be trusted to give you genuine Cuban goods.


This was all true, up to the part about tasting guano in the leaf. Rare was the man who could, but that was a tale that died hard. Like grapes and wine, tobacco and cigars have a ritual and a mythology that make up part of the pleasure.

This is true and how a great deal, but not all, locally-smoked cigarettes were made.

Important international brands contracted with outside factories, large and small, especially in the Fall when Christmas orders poured in...

Most big name companies protest their innocence: “all our work is in-house.”

If you enjoyed this small moment in 1884 Havana, you may 
also like to visit these other NCM History Exhibits:
Trade tobacco for wives     Cuba 1898 to 1960
    Honradez Cigarettes    Cigar salesmen     Street vendors
Tax history     Cuban chests     Giant cigars
“I just wanna go HOME”    ../Cigar_History/Trade_tobacco_for_wives.htmlCuba_1898-1960.htmlHonradez.html../Selling_Cigars/Cigar_salesmen.html../Selling_Cigars/Street_vendors.html../Taxes/Tax_history.htmlCuban_chests.html../Selling_Cigars/Giant_cigars.html

    This Exhibit is based in large measure on an uncredited feature article “Cigar Smoke in Havana: Popular Habits in the Capital of Tobacco Land,” originally published on page 8 of the New York SUN, for June 1, 1884.

    Text throughout has been lightly edited for the modern reader, removing obscure references, slang, long-run-on sentences and obfuscating phrases and grammatical structures.

    All edits, sidebars, notes and other red text is by Tony Hyman, Creator, Curator, Owner of the National Cigar History Museum. All boxes, photos, artifacts and other illustrations herein are owned as part of the Museum Collection. I take responsibility for accuracy and always glad to learn something new.

Smoking in Cuba

Who smokes the most?

Cigar smoking

8 or 80, women smoked in puerto Rico, Mexico, The Philippines ... all Spanish Colonies.

Cigars and Bird Droppings

Brevas and Cigarros

Re-rolled Cigarettes

Women in the artsy crowd, actresses, musicians tended to smoke.

That’s what the man wrote.