Cigars in the 20th century

Cigars in the 20th century

In a previous article, we talked about the increased popularity of cigarettes and how they affected cigar sales in the US and Europe. Cigars in the 20th century went through periods of increased popularity and decline. Although demand for them decreased, in quantitative terms, Cuban cigars remained the most desirable form of tobacco all over the world. These days Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars earn top reviews and are sought after by connoisseurs and enthusiasts. How did New World cigars conquered the palates of millions of cigar smokers? Read on.

Cigars sales in the US were almost flat from the 1920's to the 1940's. Cigarettes were increasing in popularity and in the 1920's a cigar rolling machine was invented. Hand-made cigars became even more exclusive, in fact, only 2% of cigars consumed in the US and many other countries were hand-made by the 1950's. Tampa (AKA: Cigar City) kept producing hand-rolled cigars using tobacco grown in Cuba while the rest of cigar factories produced machine-rolled cigars in bulk.Throughout this period Cuban leaf was sought after and taken for granted by cigar rollers.

The Cuban revolution

Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in Cuba through military coup d'etat on two occasions, was deposed in 1959 after a general strike paralised the country and Fidel Castro with a small guerrilla movement were welcomed as heroes by masses of people in Havana. Castro wanted to implement agrarian reforms and even went to the US to calm the American's nerves who feared he was a Communist. We all know how this turned out, Castro ended up nationalising lands which were under the ownership of US companies and the lands and industries of those Cuban people who sided with the US 'and tried to undermine the values of the Cuban revolution'.

In the following years after the revolution, other industries were nationalised, eventually tobacco farms were also nationalised and many tobacco leaf growers fled to the US. Numerous American attempts to overthrow the Cuban government soured relations even more between the two countries and Fidel Castro sought protection from the Soviet Union. After the missile crisis a commercial embargo was imposed on Cuba and Cuban tobacco became the forbidden fruit in the US. Cigar manufacturers could not get Cuban leaves anymore. The embargo was approved in 1962 by J.F. Kennedy but only after his Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, got him over a thousand H. Upmann petit corona.

The birth of a new industry

Cuban tobacco leaf was off limits for cigar rollers and the industry had to be kept afloat. 'We bought tobacco left and right' said Alfons Mayer, who was the buyer for the gigantic General Cigar Company, in an interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine. Many different tobaccos from different countries were blended and different cigar brands emerged as soon as Cuban dynasties found new premises in other countries.  Cigar factories started to operate in Canary Islands, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and other countries.

Cuban seeds were used to grow tobacco in various countries by many Cuban families. The seeds produced tasty and interesting varieties which were different to the indigenous tobacco. The 1960's and 1970's were periods of trial and error with many plantations popping up everywhere. Free-trade zones were declared in the Dominican Republic and many cigar factories were set up there. Tampa and Miami had less and less cigar factories.

While all that was happening in the New World cigar scene, sales of hand-made cigar declined by 66% in the US between the 1960's and the early 90's. Legends of the cigar industry like Standford Newman claimed that the industry 'was a dying trade'. The industry as a whole was sleepy with many factories supplying few retailers who placed the same orders time and time again. This stable demand allowed cigar manufacturers to produce consistent cigars which a new publication, Cigar Aficionado Magazine would rate in its first few editions. The cigar boom was about to start.

Read how cigars rose in popularity in the late 19th century and early 20th century here.

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