The tobacco industry in what would become the United States began with its early colonies growing tobacco as a cash crop. As early as 1612, John Rolfe of the Jamestown colony (famed for marrying the woman commonly known as Pocahontas) began growing a strain of tobacco he had obtained from a visiting ship captain. The tobacco available from the local indigenous tribes was too bitter for Rolfe’s English palate, but this strain from South America was sweeter and more similar to Spanish tobacco. He shipped some of his crop to England, unsure of its acceptance, but by 1617, he was able to ship over 20,000 pounds of his crop to sell for a profit. In its early days, Virginia used tobacco and tobacco promissory notes as currency, making its cultivation a primary focus for much of the colonial era and well beyond. Not only would it become valuable as a commodity, but tobacco would begin to drive local factory employment throughout the United States, to the point that whole communities were dedicated to such undertakings as rolling cigars.
Cigars, also spelled “segar” in the early days, didn’t really catch on as a popular form of tobacco consumption in the colonies until around 1770. This is when the New England tobacco crops had finally gotten a Cuban tobacco strain to adapt to the cooler climate. At that time, cigars were usually made by farmer’s wives. They weren’t especially known for being skillfully crafted, but they were available and accepted for bartering in local shops. Throughout the late 18th century, tobacco became a more and more significant crop, and naturally, were then crafted into ready-to-use products. In 1794, John Hancart of Germantown, Pennsylvania, announced the opening of his cigar and tobacco factory, where they made common cigars in addition to snuff, pipe tobacco, and chaw. By 1810, tobacco factories were expanding and one Simeon Viets of West Suffield, Connecticut, opened one in competition to his brother. To get the edge on his brother, he hired a Cuban cigar-roller to train local women in the practice of rolling cigars. The first two women hired as cigar rollers were Clarissa King and Sally Ingraham. The cigar-rolling craft was a male-dominated skill in Cuba, but in the United States, it was often seen as more of a woman’s job.
In 1825, Joseph Kirk, a tobacconist in Wheeling (in what would become West Virginia) first used the term “stogie” to describe a type of cigar he was making. He had a smaller cigar making factory, which relied heavily on the shipping drivers of the day who delivered cargo by way of Conestoga wagons. It is possible Kirk was inspired by the drivers delivering his tobacco shipments who were already smoking “homemade” cigars. He began making cheaper, shorter cigars in such a way that they were easier to draw smoke. Stogies were roughly tapered on one end and displayed loose in a jar or tin. They were expressly for the Conestoga drivers and were sold cheaply for them to grab a handful for the return trip. The sales price was four for a penny. The nickname “stogie” came from the shortened “Conestoga,” and it stuck. The drivers were known to stick the stogies in their boots to keep them straight and handy to reach. Of course, other people could and would buy stogies, too, spreading the slang term to refer to any inexpensive cigar.
As the population grew, the demand for cigars grew and factories sprang up everywhere to make them. Although they were often called “nickel cigars,” the price and quality varied by factory, brand, region, and taxation. By 1880, the United States was in its cigar “Golden Age” where tobacco, not cotton, seemed to be king. In 1885, Pennsylvania alone had 4,658 factories, and 1,014 of those were in Philadelphia. New York had the second highest number of factories at 4,495, with 1,875 factories in mid and lower Manhattan alone. A “factory” could employ as few as three people and up to as many as a thousand or more. Many small factories (fewer than 10 employees) employed only men, or sometimes female family members. Most medium factories (10 – 99 employees), especially in the North, employed only women. Larger factories often had multiple-story buildings that performed one step of the process per floor, and thereby employed a broader portion of the population, including children.
As one may imagine, immigrants who were clustered around these factory belts often became cigar factory workers. Hiring ads for cigar strippers (the job of removing stems and ribs from the tobacco leaves), bundlers, rollers, and packers, were oftentimes geared directly to women, as these jobs required nimble fingers, dexterity, attention to detail, and an eye for color (especially for packers who were charged with grouping cigars into uniform colors per bundle or box). Men were often employed in the construction of cigar boxes, the eventual standard packaging for all cigars. Unfortunately, this focus on hiring immigrants often led to unsafe, unfair, and predatory working conditions.
One problematic labor scheme in New York City had “factories” in the form of apartment buildings that housed families, who made cigars to earn the rent. Often, every capable member of the family had to work long hours every day to be able to afford the rent, leaving just a small pittance of surplus pay for food and household necessities. It was the cigar-maker’s equivalent of the coal miner who “owed his soul to the company store,” binding the immigrants into poverty and servitude.
It should also be noted that some immigrant communities used the tobacco industry in its favor. In Tampa, one of the oldest remaining cigar companies, J. C. Newman Cigar Company had its start in 1895 employing mostly Cuban immigrants. German, Italian, Romanian Jewish, and Chinese immigrants all had a presence in Tampa’s cigar industry around the turn of the 20th century, in an area called Ybor City. Social clubs sprang up in the neighborhood and a mishmash of cultures was created around the cigar industry there. Workers even received the educational benefit of lectures while they worked to relieve the boredom of repetitive motions.
In Detroit’s cigar factories, the workers were almost all female daughters of Polish and German immigrants aged 12-20. One study of these female workers found that more than half of all Polish daughters in this age group were working in cigar factories, and 45% of German daughters did as well. These girls and young women were making money for the family in lieu of attending school. While having a sense of industry and a useful skill that could lead to independence was generally viewed as a positive aspect of working, the lack of education created its own disadvantages.
The economic downturn of the Great Depression and the advent of industrialization during the late 1930s reduced the demand for cheap cigars, and many factories shut their doors. Cigarettes eventually replaced cigars as the preferred tobacco product after World War II. Today’s cigar industry is relatively niche compared to its heyday, but the industry is still remembered fondly and celebrated as an important aspect of American and immigrant heritage and culture.
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🏭Tracing Urban Residences During the Industrial Revolution
In 1790, ninety percent of the population in the young United States lived and worked on farms in rural areas. One hundred years later, in 1890, it was seventy-two percent, and by 1920, a brief thirty years after that, less than half the population remained in rural settings. This shift to urbanization was largely fueled by industrialization. In the fifty-five years following the Civil War, from 1865 to 1920, over eleven million Americans migrated from rural areas to cities, and another twenty-five million immigrants, primarily from Europe, entered the United States all seeking better lives and economic opportunities.
As city populations rapidly boomed, housing for these new populations was at a premium. Existing building codes and infrastructure, such as street grids and buildings, played a large role in how housing was addressed and the use of tenement buildings came to be. Tenements are generally narrow, low-rise buildings which were subdivided into single or sets of rooms housing multiple individuals or families to a floor; existing buildings were often converted and new buildings or even clusters of wood shanties were constructed - usually with cheap materials and shortcuts to take advantage of high demand. Tenements quickly became synonymous with immigrants and the urban poor who experienced dense overcrowding and inhumane living conditions - having little to no sunlight, ventilation or utilities (particularly in interior rooms), which exacerbated the spread of disease and high mortality rates. Seeking employment opportunities and the alleviation of overcrowding and overcharging by landlords, city populations tended to move residences often.
When tracing ancestors through census records, you can often identify tenement or other apartment buildings in cities by a single house or dwelling number followed by multiple households identified by the family number. Family numbers are a misnomer, because the individuals within that “family” were not necessarily related and the number simply indicated a household unit. In the 1900 Census excerpt below, the enumeration of 22 Monroe Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (New York City) spanned five census pages and contained 175 individuals in 31 households. Many of the households living in one unit or set of rooms, were comprised of unrelated individuals or families who also housed unrelated boarders. In 1900, just in New York City, there were over eighty thousand tenement buildings housing 2.3 million people - two thirds of the city’s population.
While census records provide a snapshot for every decade, city directories may allow you to track ancestors to new addresses by year. However, directory research can be complex because, generally, only those with occupations were traced and often immigrants and the poor may have gone unaccounted. Additionally, the only information provided is a name, occupation or industry and a street address. If an individual moved residences each year and had a common name or occupation, it can be challenging to identify the correct person. In cities, vital and employment records were more widely kept, and often these documents provided a place of residence at the time of the recorded event - these records can help identify addresses between census years and also allow you to identify the correct person in city directories.
Mapping can help to trace locations and to identify neighborhoods, amenities, schools and places of worship in a neighborhood which may have been attended by family members and provide you with more research opportunities as you build more context about their lives. Street and fire insurance maps contemporary to the years being searched can prove to be excellent resources for research.
Tracing your ancestors’ steps through one of the most rapid periods of change in history can provide you with new insight and appreciation for their experiences and also provide you with wonderful new research opportunities.
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Ohio County Public Library Archives, Archiving Wheeling (http://www.archivingwheeling.org : accessed 31 August 2022), “Buckle of the Stogie Belt.”
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Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 31 August 2022), “Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lived.”
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Khan Academy (http://khanacademy.org : accessed 31 August 2022), “America moves to the city.”
New York Tenement House Department, Photographic negatives of the New York City Tenement House Department, digital images, The New York Public Library (http://nypl.org : accessed 31 August 2022), digital images from original glass negative, “Orchard Street Scene,” 1902-1914, NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b16563378.
Tenement Museum (http://tenement.org : accessed 31 August 2022), “The Census: Reading Between the Lines.”
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