There are no precise records as to when people first began to notice the plant that we today call tobacco. It has grown wild in the area that was to become North and South America from time immemorial and probably began to be used by indigenous peoples there much earlier than 1 B.C. as part of their religious ceremonies. Smoking the plant put the seal on diplomatic agreements, as well as serving as a rite of passage into adulthood for young men. It was also sniffed up through the nose or even sometimes drank as a liquid. From about 600 A.D. its use was depicted on Central American Mayan pottery. There exist pictures of Mayans smoking rolled tobacco leaves tied with string on such pieces, and it is from the Mayan word for the act of smoking, “sikar”, that we get the modern word cigar. The modern cigar that we know and love was still a long way off, however, and it was an even longer time until the word itself came into common usage.
Although it formed an important part of Native American culture, both in religious and diplomatic contexts, it was only with the arrival of Europeans in 1492 that tobacco use became a primarily secular pursuit. Two of Christopher Columbus’ sailors, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis De Torres, were two of the first crew members to make contact with the natives of the islands they had landed on, and one of the first things they noticed was the practice of smoking tobacco. De Torres, a classical scholar, noticed the similarities of this practice with the accounts he had read in Herodotus of Scythians smoking cannabis, and it gave credence to the Europeans initial belief that they were indeed in Asia. His partner De Jerez was recorded as being the first European to try the practice himself, a habit he kept up every day afterward. Columbus noted the plant in his logs, writing of “certain dried leaves” that “gave off a distinctive fragrance,” but gave it not much more than this passing mention.
Columbus’ voyage is often recorded being the first European expedition to bring the tobacco plant and its seeds back to Europe, but this is actually erroneous. Although some of his sailors, notably the enthusiastic De Jerez, could have brought back small samples, it was the Spanish writer and courtier Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes who is thought to have first brought the plant back in any notable quantities. He is also an important figure in the etymology of the word tobacco. Most sources attribute the origin of the word to either the city of Tabasco in Mexico or Tobago in the Lesser Antilles. Oviedo relates that the word instead comes from “tobago” which was a Y shaped instrument that the Native Americans on the island of Hispaniola (now modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) used to smoke the plant in. The two were switched over time and so the original name of the smoking apparatus is now used for the plant.
Wherever the word comes from the plant and its uses caught on back in Europe and the rolled leaves of the cigar became a popular item in Spain and Portugal in the 1500s. Although pipes and snuff were favorites in other regions, Iberia took to the cigar readily. Eager to continue their new pastime without worry of drought, Spanish cultivation of tobacco began in earnest in 1531 on the island of Santo Domingo. Portuguese cultivation began around the same time in their colony of Brazil.
It must be remembered that at this point in history, Spain was the leading cultural as well as military power in Europe and probably the world, somewhat akin to the United States in the middle to late twentieth century. As a result, what was fashionable in Spain was fashionable on the rest of the continent. The tobacco plant reached France in the 1550s, brought from Brazil by Andre Thevet and from Spain itself by the diplomat Jean Nicot, from whom we get the modern word nicotine. Catherine De Medici of France was a fan, as was Elizabeth I of England, who tried smoking in 1600 after being persuaded by Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh had himself been introduced to the practice by Sir Francis Drake, the man credited most often with introducing tobacco to England. The English and French did not favor cigars at this point, preferring snuff and clay pipes. Nevertheless, it was a popular hobby with estimates of 7,000 tobacconists operating in London by the beginning of the 1600s.
The Spanish, who absorbed the Kingdom of Portugal under Philip II in the late 1500s, were aware of the growing popularity of tobacco with their northern neighbors, and made moves to control and profit by it. At the beginning of the seventeenth century they ordered that all tobacco entering Europe from their New World colonies must dock at Seville and be taxed accordingly. Seville thus became the center of cigar production in Europe and generated a fortune exporting them and the newly invented cigarillos (little cigars) throughout the world.
In reaction to these protectionist practices, and obviously with the intention of catching some of the lucrative trade for themselves, the English began planting their own tobacco plants in their North American colony Virginia. John Rolfe brought in the first successful crop there in 1612. By 1619, it was Virginia’s largest export, and tobacco farming would go on to become one of the most important economic pillars in the emerging colonies that would become the United States. Indeed, so poor were the British colonies of North America at first, especially when compared with the gold and silver rich Spanish colonies in South America, that their primary use was as an area to grow tobacco. The Dutch, for their part, imported leaves from their own Far Eastern colonies and produced their own cigar industry. It was in the 1730s that the name “cigar” also began to catch on in popular use, with it being listed first in English dictionaries at this time as a “seegar”.
During the ensuing decades, things remained much this way, with the market for cigars and other tobacco related products developing and expanding constantly. One major development in the Spanish Empire during the 1700s was that the center of cigar production shifted from its original location at Seville. At this time Spanish producers began rolling their cigars closer to the source of the leaves, primarily in Cuba, rather than exporting the leaves and rolling them when they arrived in Seville. It was found that cigars traveled better than tobacco, and that the cigars rolled in Cuba were superior to those of Seville. Seville would remain the center of the Spanish monopoly until the early nineteenth century, but the focus of cigar making had now irreparably shifted to Cuba.
Cuba was and is particularly well suited to tobacco production and cigar manufacture due the fact that the three types of tobacco leaf necessary for rolling cigars, the filler, binder, and wrapper, can be grown on the island. Coupled with this suitability is the enthusiasm of the people of Cuba for the cigar; today 50% of Cuba’s total output is still consumed in the country’s home market.
It was from Cuba that cigar production spread to North America beyond Virginia when Israel Putnam brought seeds, plants and production methods back to Connecticut with him following the French and Indian War of the 1750s and the early 1760s. During the war, which is known as the Seven Years War in Europe, Putnam had been stationed with the British Army in Cuba and had observed the cigar making industry first hand. Sensing an opportunity, he established an industry in Connecticut that has lasted for two and half centuries. Around the same time Pierre Lorillard opened the first cigar factory in New York, but it was not until the beginning of the 1800s that the popularity of the cigar boomed outside of its traditional areas of South America and Iberia.
The catalyst of the boom was again war, this time the Napoleonic Wars, which convulsed Europe at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. In an effort to take control of his southern neighbor, Napoleon in 1808 sent his armies into Spain, where they seemed to achieve a quick victory. Spanish resistance, however, aided by a British army under General Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, drew the French into a long, drawn out guerrilla war. During the six years of the Peninsular War, as it became known, both the British and French troops had ample time to sample the local cigars, and with the conclusion of the war in 1814, the returning troops brought their newly discovered pastime back home with them. The result was a complete sea change in the history of the cigar, with it becoming fashionable for all classes in England and France by 1826. Even though he had passed away a couple of years before, fighting for Greek independence against the Turks, Lord Byron had summed up the new zeitgeist with the rather un-poetic exclamation “Give me a cigar!”
The foundations Putnam and Lorillard had laid in the United States also began to be built on and the cigar became a must have accessory there throughout the 1800s. Mark Twain was a noted aficionado proclaiming, “Eating and sleeping are the only activities that should be allowed to interrupt a man’s enjoyment of his cigar.” Other noted nineteenth century cigar enthusiasts were American general and later president Ulysses S. Grant, who was rarely seen without one and was said to get through twelve a day, and Edward, Prince of Wales, who would become Edward VII of Great Britain and Ireland in 1901. The prince became famous for breaking his mother, Queen Victoria’s, ban on smoking in the royal palaces after her death.
Cigar production had begun in Britain in 1820, and such was the surge of demand that parliament was regulating the industry just a year later. Tax was placed on foreign made cigars also, which instead of curtailing their popularity only served to further their image as luxury products. By the 1850s, it is estimated that the United States alone was consuming three hundred million cigars a year. This appetite grew even more during the American Civil War of the 1860s. The cigar’s popularity was so great that special smoking cars and rooms began to be set aside on trains and in hotels, and the custom of gentlemen retiring to the “smoking room” for brandy and cigars after dinner became the done thing in all respectable homes. Indeed, the British Parliament found it necessary to legislate that every train should have some “smoke free” carriages in 1868. It was also during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the phrase “Close, but no cigar,” became widespread as carnival workers would give cigars as prizes on amusements and games of chance. To this day it is still used to mean nearly, but not quite when someone narrowly misses a target.
In the same year the British Parliament legislated for smoke free carriages a shift in the center of production occurred again as the Ten Years War broke out between the very much declined Spanish Empire and nationalist guerrillas in Cuba. By this time, Cuba had assumed the mantle as the world leader in quality cigars, and there were probably two hundred cigar brands or marcas in the country. Such was the viciousness of the war, with about 25% of the island’s male population killed, that many of the workers, brands, and even factories, took the short trip across the water to Florida and began production there. Originally setting up at Key West, most factories later moved to Tampa, which became known as the new world capital of cigar production. In 1929, there were five hundred million cigars coming out of Tampa every year. The most prominent and successful cigar maker was Vicente Martinez Ybor, who owned seventy cigar factories. He had moved to Key West from Cuba to escape the war, and became one of the first owners to move his operations from there to Tampa, where he built the world’s largest cigar factory. The area that it inhabited, along with that set aside for accommodation of his workers, was so large that it became known as Ybor City.
The cigar’s popularity continued through the early and middle twentieth century with prominent aficionados like Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, who turned it into an icon and is credited with beginning the practice of dipping one’s cigar into port or brandy. President John F. Kennedy, as well as his nemesis Fidel Castro, were also cigar lovers; Kennedy even famously bought twelve hundred Cuban cigars (H. Upmann Petit Coronas to be precise) before signing the United States’ economic blockade of the now Communist state of Cuba into law. From 1920, the number of machine rolled cigars also increased, but hand rolled continue to be regarded as the superior method.
Cigars dipped in popularity from the 1960s, a victim of the increasing popularity of cigarettes on one hand, and a rise in public health concerns on the other. However, they came back into vogue in the 1990s in a big way, helped in part by the healthy state of the European and particularly American economies, as well as the efforts of people like Marvin R. Shanken and his Cigar Aficionado magazine, launched in 1992. It aimed to have cigars seen as part of an overall lifestyle, and so the magazine carried articles on various topics like wine, travel, and celebrities, as well as reviews of different cigar brands. Many world famous faces, such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jordan and Pierce Brosnan, featured on the magazine’s cover and were interviewed inside. A measure of the magazine’s success was seen when it conducted a major interview with Fidel Castro in 1994. By 1997 annual cigar imports into the United States were over three times what they had been at the beginning of the decade. Demand fell again in the last couple of years before the millennium, but picked up and continued into the first decade of the new century with sales of cigars rising 28% from the year 2000 to 2004.