Louis Susini’s La Honradez

30 Years Later

A National Cigar History Museum Reprint

© Tony Hyman

Uploaded: December 18, 2010


As reported in

The Times of Washington, D.C., August 6, 1899,

Second Section, page 9.

Discovered and provided by Jerry Petrone.

Minor changes have been made in the original text

for clarity and readability. Bold text indicates

reports and opinion of particular note.


A Tour Through the Largest Factory in the World.

by Fannie Brigham Ward


TRINIDAD DE CUBA, July 9. You cannot be said to have "done" this island of tabacco puro until you have visited a typical fabrica and inspected the whole process of converting the weed into the fragrant rolls, big and little, beloved of most men and many women. Perhaps the best place in which to pursue your investigations is the great Fabrica de Honradez in Habana--the word honradez being Spanish for "honesty." The factory occupies an entire city square, from Cuba Street to San Ygnacio, and in prosperous times turned out something over 2,500,000 cigars and cigarettes a day.

On entering the building you are met by a courteous gentleman of Chesterfleldian deport-ment, who speaks pigeon-English after the Cuban fashion, and whose sole avocation in life is to give tours of this establishment. First he shows you through the counting-rooms and offices, and then introduces you to the register, an enormous tome containing thousands of names, and begs you to append your own.

What a treasure-trove to the autograph hunter that volume would be! On leaving the building each visitor is again conducted to the register and asked to write opposite his name his opinion of the factory, with remarks on the peculiarities that have impressed him and any criticisms or suggestions he may feel disposed to offer.

Among a multitude of signatures you may read the names of W. H. Prescott, M. Charney Kingsley, Charles Darwin, Louis Agassiz, and a host of other shining lights of past generations, followed by those of later date, together with their hastily-formulated opinions. Some of the latter are amusing; others frivolous, concerning the pretty girls employed, or their appreciation of a liberal donation of the products of the place; while a few are in the ponderous style of William H. Seward, who wrote: "I am deeply impressed with the successful manner in which the proprietor of La Honradez has combined West Indian productions with Americans inventions, European talent and Asiatic industry."

Had our former Secretary of State been writing the same today, he would have substituted native and African for Asiatic, because where formerly a thousand Chinese coolies were employed there are now fifty. In La Honradez, about half the workmen are of African descent and the color line has never been drawn. At least one-third of the saddle-hued, called-by-courtesy "white" employees are Spaniards, and to this day it is so difficult to keep the Cubans from quarreling with them that they are grouped by themselves in separate rooms whenever practicable. 

All work by the piece, from eight to ten hours a day; and the average earning is $2.50 a day--a few experts making as much as $5 per diem. Besides their wages, most of them are lodged free of cost, and all are allowed to smoke as many cigars or cigarettes as they like, of the master's tobacco and their own making an item of no small consequence to the proprietor, when a thousand men are smoking every minute, and only the best tobacco that grows, cigars from which retail at not less than 25 cents apiece.

In the great room where cigarettes are made, each of the several hundred workmen is seated before a tiny table, on which he folds, fills, counts and does up in packages the fragrant little rolls. It is astonishing what accuracy and dexterity they acquire from long practice in handling and counting these small bits of paper. Watch those whose business it is to enclose twenty-five cigarettes in a package, just as they are bought In the United States; you will see that they seem to do it by instinct, without counting, but determining by a single touch of the fingers if there is one cigarette more or less than the required number. Just such marvelous dexterity do old employes in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at Washington acquire counting coupons in the United States Treasury, and other important work for Uncle Samuel.

One small room, full of silent, busy Asiatics, looked like a nightmare. All the grotesque figures, clad in blue dunguree, with eyes set in on the bias and heads clean-shaven, or with pigtails carefully twisted up in Psyche knots, or coarse, black hair cut short and standing up like the bristles in a blacking-brush are scrupulously neat in their persons and attire, being required to keep so by the rules of the establishment. The dormitory where the contract laborers sleep is a model of cleanliness and good order, its cots with snow white spreads and pillows, and its curious personal belongings of these exiles from the flowery kingdom. Scattered about the room are little Chinese gods, exquisite carvings, instruments of alleged music, gambling-beards, funny shoes of wood and straw and fans galore.

All the workmen are required to wear a certain hat with "La Honradez" stamped on the band; there is a' rigorous system, in the shape of fines, for any infringement of rules or dereliction of duty, and everything goes on with military precision. One odd feature, common to all Cuban cigar factories, is the reader, a man employed to entertain the others. He occupies a kind of pulpit, erected near the centre of the main room, and reads forenoon and afternoon, two hours at a time, from newspapers and current literature. Exciting political questions are tabooed, for manifest reasons, and it is the general testimony that much better work is done during the reading hours than at other times. 

Strikes are lamentably frequent, especially among the Cuban employes, who work themselves up into a high state of excitement on the slightest provocation. As a rule, however, the strikes are not serious or of long duration, the tempest-in-a-teapot rage, which soon blows over, being a Latin characteristic. The cigarmakers have their unions, called gremios, which are almost as prolific of mischief as those of the United States, and in the interest of law and order, should he sternly suppressed by the strong hand of the Government in any country.

The women and girls employed in stripping the leaf have a large, airy apartment to themselves, and how their tongues do run! Gossip, jest, and snatches of song keep time with their nimble fingers. Each has a powder-box concealed somewhere about her, and when the day's work is ended she dabs it in ghastly drifts over her face, neck, and ears. They are paid from 50 cents to 80 cents a day, and their work is confined to the cigarette department. Notwithstanding the need of flexible fingers and the fact that women are supposed to possess a more delicate touch than men, it is claimed women can never become successful cigarmakers.

To tell of all the interesting things seen in La Honradez would be to fill every page of The Times. A telegraph wire gives direct communication between the offices and the chiefs of the several departments, the shipping wharf, storehouses, and wholesale stores in various parts of the city, as well as to the carpenter's shop where the boxes are made in which the goods are packed, the residences of the proprietor and his head assistants. 

In the lower salon are machines adapted to a variety of strange purposes. Among the most novel is that for cutting picadura, the fine tobacco used in filling cigarettes; the hydraulic press used in compressing tobacco for exportation into solid blocks as hard as wood; and the press for stamping brands upon the boxes, which, instead of being burned in, as they appear, are printed by a very rapid and ingenious process. 

The barrel department is also worth inspection--barrels turned out by steam with great velocity, all hooped and headed, and though in such numbers, every one is perfectly air and water tight. 

On the second floor is a complete printing outfit, every branch of typography and lithography being constantly employed in printing circulars, labels, wrappers, views of the factory, letter heads, and millions of the beautifully colored and tastefully designed papers that enclose the cigarettes in packages of twenty-five.

In the engraving room is a fine magneto-electrique machine, invented by a Frenchman, for drawing on stone by chemical action and machinery run by electricity. The receiving and examining rooms are most interesting. 

After the cigarettes are made and put up into packages of tho allotted number, the packages are examined, wrapped in large, round bundles and packed in barrels. The store rooms are as sacredly guarded as a bank vault and, indeed, some of the tobacco leaves in it might each pass current as a greenback of large denomination. 

The products of this factory find their way to all parts of the world, being made to suit the taste of every class of smokers. Some of the cigarette papers are combined with rice, coffee, perfumery, corn, etc., and the cigars are strong, mild, and medium. The manager will tell you that the value of the Vuelta Abajo leaf lies in its flavor rather than in its strength, and that the Honradez cigars, best known from their delicate aroma, come from the Plnar del Rio plantations. 

The Remedios leaf is very strong, so strong that Cubans do not like it, and it is used only to mix with American tobacco for the American trade; and he will also add, with a shrug of his shoulders, that los Americanos do not know what good tobacco is--they demand strength rather than aroma and as a rule would rather pay ten cents for a crude thing a quarter of a yard long than a dollar for a three-inch cigar fit for Royalty. 

What its churches are to Rome, Fabricas (factories) are to Havana. Before the war there were more than two hundred of them in the one city, from the obscure tiendas, open to the street and employing two or three assistants, to the great factories of a thousand skilled employes. The poor little shops turn out inferior grades, such as wives and sisters have a pernicious habit of presenting to the husbands and brothers on Christmas and birthdays, for some of the vilest cigars on earth may be bought by the unsophisticated in Cuba.

Among the largest and best factories is La Cabanas, which has given its name to a certain brand known to all smokers. It is a great stone building opposite the Campo de Marte, and was founded by Señor Don Francisco de Cabanas a hundred years ago. For a time its annual output was limited by the Government to 500,000 cigars a year, but when the war began it was disposing of an average of sixteen million cigars per annum. 

It used only Vuelto Abajo tobacco, and the best of that, by contract with certain plantations. Besides permitting its six hundred operatives to smoke all the cigars they desired during the hours of labor, the too liberal managers allowed each man to carry off five, to last him over night. At first glance this seems a trifling detail, but come to figure it up, you find it means something like two million cigars a year, the cheapest of which sell for $20 per thousand.

When tobacco bales, carefully packed and wrapped in palm leaves, arrive at the factory, they are kept in a cool, dark place on the first floor, where they are divided into classes according to quality, varying in value from $20 to $400 per bale of 200 pounds. When the bales are opened for use, the manojas and gabillas are separated and the latter carried in their dry state to the moistening room. The leaves are softened by putting them in hogsheads containing a solution of saltpetre and water; then the water is poured off and the leaves spread upon the edges of the barrels to partially dry. 

After being thoroughly wet, the leaves unfold easily, without tearing if care is exercised. The stems are then taken out and with the refuse of other tobacco is laid aside for filling the cheapest  cigars. This filling is known as tripa, and few of the best cigars are altogether guiltless of it. 

The manufacture of a cigar looks simple enough. The workman, supplying himself with a handful of leaf, called capa (the Spanish word for "cloak"), and a lot of tripa for the body of the cigar, seats himself at his little table, which has raised ledges on every side but that nearest to him. He spreads out the capa and cuts it into strips with a sharp knife. This is the most delicate part of the operation, requiring skill, knowledge, and experience.

By it the different qualities are separated which determine in great measure the strength, aroma and value of the cigars, the outside of the leaf being generally the best and that nearest the stem the worst Then he lays a few fragments of tripa in the centre of each strip, rolls the whole into the required shape, and then, taking a wrapper, rolls it spirally around the now completed cigar. If an expert, he has made it precisely the right length, shape, and size, without any trimming. 

Try your own bungling hand at it, and you come to the conclusion that the manipulator must be a juggler as well as an artist. Besides educated hands, he must have fingers with the sensitiveness of antennae, an unerring eye, sound nerve, and a judicial nose.

The sorting of tobacco is done by workmen of great judgment and experience, who command the highest pay. At La Cabanas the official escojedo, or sorter of wrappers, gets $7 a day, while the torcedores, or twisters, receive an average of $2. After being assorted, counted, and done up in packages of twenty-five, the cigars are packed in boxes already branded as "Regalias," "Londres," etc., and are ready for market. 

The names on the boxes mean a good deal more than the uninitiated may imagine. The "Regalia Imperial," for example, is seven inches long and worth almost its weight in gold. The "Trabues" is a medium grade, short and thick, the favorite of the Catalan shop-keepers in Cuba. The "Dama" is very small and delicate, smoked by Cuban ladies, and by men between acts of the opera. It is generally highly flavored, by vanilla or some other extract. The "Vegueros," a plantation cigar, is made on the vegas of the very best leaves, roughly twisted for the planters' own use, and if sold at all, at the most exorbitant price.