A brief history of cigars (part I)
A brief history of cigars
This brief history of cigars will look at the origins of our beloved sticks from their first ever mention in Latin America during the Spanish Colonisation and up until the late 19th century.
Archaeological findings in Guatemala dating from the 10th century show the use of tobacco among the Mayans. Tobacco leaves were used during shamanic rituals, the shaman would smoke the tobacco leaves after blending them with other herbs. Not only the Mayans, many different cultures in Latin America used tobacco for different purposes. It was thought that the husky and deep voice caused by the repeated use of tobacco smoke would make the voice of the shaman fit to speak to the gods.
Tobacco reaches Europe
Tobacco was first seen by Europeans soon after they reached the Americas. In Cuba, Taino indians would roll tobacco leaves and palm tree leaves and smoke them. Other than just passing mentions on travelers' records, tobacco did not reach the European market up until the end of the 15th century.
A man whose name was Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes took considerable quantities of tobacco back to Spain and shared it among his acquaintances. They soon took on the hobby of puffing away rolled tobacco leaves. We can argue that the first few 'cigars' had been commercialised by then.
That hobby took off and by 1531 Spain ordered its colonies to start cultivating tobacco all over the place. During this period Spain was the military superpower of Europe as well as its cultural centre. Soon, other countries embraced tobacco and Spain made it mandatory for all of its merchant ships to register their loads in Seville. Cuban tobacco growers could only sell their leaves to the Spanish crown. The new tobacco monopoly was going to last until the 19th century.
In 1606 the Spanish king decreed that the sale of tobacco to foreigners was forbidden and punishable by death. Although tobacco reached France for the first time in 1550, cigars did not become popular there. Pipes and snuff were the most commons forms of tobacco consumption. Such was the popularity of tobacco in England and France that by the early 1600's there were 7000 tobacconists operating in London alone.
Some people claim that Nicotine, the active substance in tobacco, was named after Jean Nicot who was the French ambassador to Portugal in the mid 16th century. He loved tobacco so much that he introduced it to his home country.
Tobacco crops take off
It didn't take long for English merchants to realise that paying the high prices commanded by tobacco imported by Spain could be avoided if England found itself a tobacco growing territory. Around 1612, Englishman John Rolfe cultivated successfully the first tobacco crops in Virginia. By 1620, it was the colony's largest export. The increased popularity of tobacco as a cash crop would fuel the slave trade in the following 200 years. Tobacco growing took off all over the states in the union and only two of them, Montana and Idaho, did not have their own cigar factory by 1880.
How did cigars went from being almost unknown to being so popular outside of Spain? In Britain at least, cigars became popular after the Peninsular war (1808-1814) when veterans came back smoking cigars after learning the custom while serving in Spain. In America it was a general, Israel Putnam, who is said to have popularised cigars. After returning to his home in Connecticut from Cuba, where he served under the British army, he took cigars with him as well as Cuban tobacco seeds.
Cigars really took off during the Civil war and by the late 19th century, cigar consumption in the US stood at about 4 billion sticks per year. Cigars were seen as a status symbol in Europe during the late 19th century. Trains boasted smoking cars and clubs, restaurants and hotels had smoking rooms for their guests. By the 1890's there was a cheaper alternative to hand-rolled cigars, cigarettes. They were going to change how tobacco was going to be consumed and perceived in the 20th century. Read 'A brief history of cigars (part II) here.