A brief history of cigars: Cuba

Photo: rare historical photos

A brief history of cigars

We continue with our brief history of cigars , in a previous article  we talked about the rise in popularity of cigars. We talked about the monopoly that Spain started and how it was the desire to overcome that monopoly what pushed Britain to seek its own tobacco growing territories. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the popularity of cigars started to decline, a cheaper alternative was being favoured among the general population: cigarettes.

 The rise of the 'paper cigar'

Records from 1865 show that hand-rolled cigarettes were already being sold in North Carolina. Those cigarettes were sold mostly to soldiers at the end of the Civil War. Their popularity increased and according to some estimates 'people smoked about 40 cigarettes per year'.

In 1881 a mechanised cigarette machine was invented and some 120 000 cigarettes were being produced every day. Soon, a cigarette company started: The American Tobacco Co. by its fifth year of existence one billion cigarettes were produced every year. The increased popularity of cigarettes inevitably affected the sales of cigars. Cigar sales decreased and cigars became more of a status symbol. Celebrities and politicians were often seen with massive sticks. Cigars were selling less and less not only because of the advent of cigarettes.

In Britain, Queen Victoria was a harsh critic of smoking, she banned the practice at Royal properties and only allowed cigarette smoking at some of her properties in order to get rid of the midges during the summer months. Many critics of smoking became more and more vocal, 'good etiquette' guides were published and almost all of them referred to cigarette smoking as a 'repulsive habit'. Those guides recommended Pipe and cigar smoking only at 'appropriate places'.

Cigars continued to be produced in large quantities and had wealthy and famous defenders. One of them, Mark Twain, famously said: 'If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go'. More and more cigars were being rolled outside of Cuba and by the early 20th century, Tampa had been nicknamed 'Cigar City'. The cigar industry boomed there thanks to the influx of Cuban cigar rollers.

The Edwardian Era

'Gentlemen you may smoke', those were the words uttered by the new King, after the death of Queen Victoria (1901), during his first address to Parliament. In Britain, Cuban cigars in particular, became more of an aristocratic privilege and were very popular among the wealthier classes. Buyers of fine cigars went to great lengths to secure supplies and it became common practice to laid down great quantities of cigars for ageing.

Cuban cigar makers were delighted with the increased demand from Britain and started to produce cigars of the finest quality to please the palates of their most demanding customers. The demand for high quality cigars increased and the orders for cigars were getting bigger and bigger. One issue arose: how to send massive shipments of cigars to Britain by boat without damaging them?

Master cabinet makers in Cuba were commissioned with the elaboration of intricate cedar 'wardrobes'. Those massive humidors, or cabinets, had plenty of room to store hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of cigars at a time. There was another problem: how to prevent the cigars from rolling inside the cabinets and getting damaged? Slide Lid Boxes were the answer.

Cabinet Selection

These days Cabinet Selection cigars are among the finest and most sought after cigars from Cuba. The Slide Lid Box (SLB) solved the problem of damaged cigars during transportation and those who could afford the gargantuan cabinets wanted only the best cigars that money could buy. The best cigar rollers from each factory were called to roll the best tobacco blends possible. The demand for fine Cuban cigars increased even more. The largest cabinet ever recorded was produced at the Romeo y Julieta factory in 1923 and it contained no less than 30 thousands cigars.

The cabinets are no longer produced but the SLB boxes are still around. Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and a few others still package their finest cigars in those boxes. Boxes that bear the words 'Cabinet Selection' still contain some of the finest Cuban cigars out there.

On our next article we will talk about the cigar industry and how it was affected by historical events in the 20th century. See it here.

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