Cigars have been prized for centuries for their complex and rich flavor, among other things. But how much of their long and fascinating history do you know? In this latest entry to our cigars series, we delve into the world of cigars and share how they have come to be a staple accessory for the discerning gentleman.
Who Invented Cigars?
The precursor to the cigar as we know it likely got its start in ancient Mayan culture. In fact, the name 'cigar' possibly derives from the Mayan word 'sicar,' meaning to smoke rolled tobacco leaves.
The oldest record of cigars, or at least a rudimentary version, is an archeological discovery —a thousand-year-old Mayan pot depicting a Mayan man puffing on one of the earliest forms of cigars—tobacco wrapped in palm or plantain leaves.
The filler is thought to have been so strong that it caused hallucinations and was often smoked during sacred and religious ceremonies.
The Mayans then took tobacco with them when they migrated in later centuries as far north as Canada and south to Chile, spreading tobacco smoking to other native cultures.
Columbus Brings Cigars to Europe
Most cigar enthusiasts have heard the tale of Columbus witnessing the indigenous Cuban population smoking "cylindrical bundles of twisted tobacco leaves wrapped in dried palm or corn husks." When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, he and his men were also the first Westerners to find tobacco.
The local Indians showed Columbus and his lieutenants how they smoked the tobacco leaves, and the European sailors quickly adopted the habit.
The story goes that one of Columbus' men was particularly drawn to cigar smoking and smoked every day on the long journey back home.
Upon arriving back at the shores of Spain, tobacco smoking caught on and quickly became popular across Spain and neighboring Portugal. The French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, from whose name the word 'nicotine' originates, is credited with introducing tobacco and cigars to France in the late 1500s.
Tobacco farms started popping up all over Spain. Seville, Spain, was at the epicenter of tobacco smoking and is recognized as being the birthplace of the modern cigar.
By the early 18th century, Spanish manufacturers had refined the cigar-making process and now wrapped dried tobacco in specialized papers instead of leaves. Around this time, the idea of constructing the modern cigar with a filler, binder, and wrapper was invented.
Critics of Cigar Smoking
Not everyone in Europe embraced cigars. For some rulers in Europe, tobacco smoking presented social implications and health issues.
- In 1604, King James I (1566–1625) issued a treatise in which he expressed his distaste for tobacco. While he didn't make tobacco sales illegal, he instituted a 4,000 percent tax hike on tobacco. However, the price increase did little to reduce the demand for cigars and other tobacco products such as snuff.
- The Roman Catholic Church prohibited the smoking of any tobacco inside any church.
- Russia would ban all tobacco for 70 years, starting in 1627.
- The Ottoman Empire went a step further under Sultan Murad IV, who banned the practice and even had smokers executed.
- During the reign of Queen Victoria of England, from 1837 to 1901, cigar smoking was limited to homes and private clubs.
Yet this did very little to curtail the growth of the cigar industry. And this was in large part thanks to Cuba.
Cuba The Home of Cigars
It was not long before the Spanish cigar manufacturers found that Cuba was the ideal place to grow tobacco. The country's climate and soil were suitable for growing tobacco plants that produced fantastic wrappers, fillers and binders.
In 1740, the Real Compãnia de Comercio de la Habana (Royal Trading Company of Havana) was created by royal decree. Spain imported the raw materials from Cuba, assembled the cigars themselves and sold them across Europe.
Given that Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, they were able to forbid Cuban growers from selling the crop to anyone but them. This meant Spain pretty much controlled the production of the world's best cigars for several centuries.
However, in 1821 Spain allowed Cuba to manufacture Cigars and hence the Cuban cigar was born. In appreciation for Spain's kind gesture, the Cubans used to deliver a box of their best cigars to the Spanish king every year.
Soon, the demand in Spain for Cuban cigars surpassed the demand for sevillas (the Spanish version). Cuban cigars remain to be popular to date and over the years, Cuba has created some of the most revered cigars in the world.
A great example is Cohiba, a private brand that used to be supplied exclusively to Fidel Castro and high-level officials in the Cuban government or given away as diplomatic gifts.
The Cuban Cohiba brand was then launched as a premium cigar brand in 1982 and remained to be one of the most popular cigar brands to date. Seasoned cigar aficionados will appreciate premium Cuban cigars.
Cigars Gain Global Appeal.
The siege of Havana was a successful British siege against Spanish-ruled Havana that lasted from March to August 1762. During those 9 months, a lot of international shipping went through Cuba.
This meant many more new people got to try out the fine Cuban cigars. People from all over the world discovered that Cuban cigars were the best, and they all now wanted them.
One man, in particular, Israel Putnam, an American general in the Revolutionary War, really loved Cuban cigars.
So much so that he returned from Cuba to his home in Connecticut with a selection of 30,000 Havana cigars and large amounts of Cuban tobacco seed! This was the origin of cigar smoking in the US.
A few years later, cigar factories were established in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. Over the next century, the United States overtook Cuba in tobacco and cigar production. To date, Connecticut tobacco provides some of the best wrapper leaves to be found outside Cuba.
Cigars as a Status Symbol
Despite Spain's successful commercialization of cigar making in the 18th century, cigars were regarded as a luxury item for a very long time.
For one, cigars were quite expensive and only the wealthy could afford them. The higher costs could be attributed to the many taxes imposed on tobacco products as well as the inefficient cigar-making processes that led to a lot of wastage and high production costs.
Prominent men throughout history were also lovers of cigars. This added to the air of sophistication and class bequeathed to cigar smoking.
- Mark Twain, who's lauded as the "greatest humorist the United States has produced", was known to smoke up to 22 cigars a day!
- Winston Churchill’s love of cigars began in 1895, during a trip to Cuba where he spent several days enjoying local cigars. Now a popular cigar shape named after him. The "Churchill" cigar.
- Fidel Castro, when interviewed and photographed, always had a cigar with him, puffing occasionally while being asked questions.
- Upon ascending to the throne, King Edward VII quickly reversed the ban on public smoking. The king is famously quoted as having said, "Gentlemen, you may smoke!"
- John F Kennedy, Sigmund Feud, Thomas Edison, ..the list goes on and on.
From the 1750s all through to the 1950s, smoking cigars was elevated above all other tobacco products as a symbol of status.
Cigars in the Last 100 years
The early 1900s were a period of significant changes to the cigar industry.
First, there was the development of Homogenized Tobacco Leaf (HTL)— a paper-like material produced from finely ground tobacco which results in minimal waste. The binders and wrappers of machine-made cigars often consist of Homogenized Tobacco Leaf (HTL).
Then there was machine rolling, invented in the 1920s. These two processes resulted in a drastic lowering in cigar prices in the United States and across the globe. Machine-rolled Cigars were more affordable than hand-rolled ones. Despite the lower quality, machine-made cigars represent a majority of the total cigar sold in the world
Even as the US cigar industry grew, the demand for Cuban cigars remained strong. Cigars popularity rose throughout the 20th century, hitting a peak during the 1950s.
However, in 1962, John F. Kennedy imposed a strict trade embargo on Cuba. But Kennedy was also a cigar lover! So before signing the ban in 1962, he had his press secretary go out and buy all the H. Upmann cigars he could find. The aide found 1200 and Kennedy, with his favorite cigars secured, signed the embargo the following day.
The embargo is still in place, which means it's illegal to import Cuban cigars into the US. In other countries, like neighboring Canada, Canada Cuban cigars are legal, but smoking is banned almost everywhere in public.
The antismoking movement that picked pace in the 1990s has resulted in a major decline in cigar consumption. It became increasingly difficult for cigar smokers worldwide to enjoy their cigars unhindered.
At one time the cigar smoking demographic was composed mainly of, and marketed towards, the more distinguished and refined consumers but today smokers come from “all walks of life.
There has been a resurgence in the popularity of cigars in the recent past as more people embrace cigar smoking as a hobby. The number of avid cigar collectors has been growing steadily over the past decade.
Judging by the growing number of annual cigar auctions and private sales, many cigar collectors now see cigars as an alternative investment. Very similar to collecting expensive whiskey or wine.
Related: The 10 Most Expensive Cigars in History.
New to the world of cigars? Read our post:10 Cigar Terms You Need to Know.
Also, check our article, 10 Things to Know When Starting a Cigar Collection. We share beginner-friendly tips for people just getting started on smoking cigars and build their collection.