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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

Category:Cigar Manufacturers

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CIGAR MANUFACTURERS. Cigar manufacturing was a major employer in Iowa. The peak of the industry occurred from the 1800s to the 1920s. This growth was linked to the popularity of the cigar in American culture. The cigar was used to distinguish America from the pretentiousness of Europe where pipe smoking was in fashion. As early as the CIVIL WAR, smoking was encouraged in the military to help soldiers deal with the boredom and horrors around them. Smoke was considered preferable to alcohol which affected a soldier's performance in the field. By the 1880s, smoking a cigar seemed to convey the idea in a male dominated society that the individual was accomplished.

During the 1850s and 1860s, small scale producers called "buckeyes" often operated from a backroom or house with only one employee. In 1885, there were 256 cigar factories in Iowa, with 66 having ten on more employees. While Iowa would never rival eastern cities as centers for cigar manufacture, the United States Directory of Cigar Manufacturers (1902) listed 375 manufacturers in 158 Iowa communities. The business was considered a major industry in Burlington, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Keokuk, Muscatine, and Sioux City.

Tobacco was never an important crop in Iowa. In 1863, Iowa tobacco farmers produced over a half million pounds. In the 1860s, Davenport cigar maker Nicholas Kuhnen gave free seed to local farmers, but most tobacco for Iowa factories was grown in Wisconsin or eastern states.

Cigar production began with the delivery of large bales of tobacco to the factory. Taxed by the weight, meant that the bales were treated carefully to avoid waste. The highest quality larger leaves were used for the outside wrapper; the smaller leaves became the "filler." Tobacco leaves were dampened to make them pliable.

The leaves first went to the strippers who removed the leaves' center stem. In some factories the leaves were then smoothed by feeding them through a mechanism like a wringer. Tobacco destined as filler was dried on large racks for several hours. High quality tobacco was kept in bundles called "hands."

Rolling the cigar required talent in judging the amount of filler needed for a particular type of cigar, using a knife to trim the wrapper leaf, assembling the wrapper and filler, and finishing the cigar by trimming the leaf and pasting it.

The work environment in the factories was often dark and dank because the wrapper leaves needed to be kept flexible. The smell of tobacco and the fumes from coal stoves caused nausea. Except for the work tables where the movement of the employees prevented it, a fine brown dust settled everywhere. Tuberculosis was suffered in higher rates than any occupation other than stone cutting. Although conversation was discouraged, it was not prohibited to avoid losing workers.

It has been estimated that one-third of all cigar workers in the United States were itinerants who moved from factory to factory as they chose. In the early decades, workers controlled their own hours. Iowa cigar factories were generally operated year-round with workers paid by the hour or piece (per 1,000 cigars). Skilled workers chose the latter form of payment because they earned more money. In Iowa, for 1894-1895, as much as 85% of the workers chose this method of pay.

Women found their way slowly into the cigar business. Usually, even after the adoption of some mechanization, they were given the low paying jobs. They often lived at home with their parents. One machine that aided women was the cigar mold. Workers piled dried tobacco into a trough set in one half of a mold. The top half of the mold was then screwed on. After several hours, the mold was opened and the compressed filler was ready for a wrapper.

Despite offering work, the cigar industry was not a money-maker for its employees. Women were paid half the wage earned by men even in managerial positions. In a Davenport factory, the women joined Local 172 of the Cigar Makers International Union. The owner reacted by cutting the women's piecework rate by 25%. When the men joined the strike, the owner installed machinery so that less expensive workers could be hired. When the strike collapsed after four months, the women were forced to continue working at the lower rate and the union levied a fine of $15 on those who returned to work--the equivalent of three weeks' work.

Union membership for men did not offer much better results. In 1899 the unions struck 11 times and 13 times in 1900. Unions were able to establish fixed piece rates but only for union members.


Society helped destroy the local cigar business. Cigarettes improved their image with the government even encouraging smoking them as a patriotic act. In magazines and MOTION PICTURES, villains smoked cigars by the 1920s while heroes smoked cigarettes. Increased use of mechanization by larger companies made national brands more affordable. PROHIBITION played a role because cigars were commonly smoked in taverns. Finally sanitary conditions were considered. Some cigar rollers to put their fingers in their mouth and then into the paste used to assemble the cigars. Large factories promoted "no spit tip cigars" in advertising that local companies could not afford.



Hyman, Tony. Cigar Factories--1885. Online: http://cigarhistory.info/Cigarmaking/Cigar_factories_1885_II.html

Vermaas, Lori. "Making the Perfect Cigar in Iowa," Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Fall and Winter, 2011, p. 120-127

Companies that produced cigars in Dubuque included: