The cigar industry that developed in Tampa after 1886 had little resemblance to today's mechanized cigar manufacturing. Ybor City's top factories made high-quality, hand-rolled cigars, each crafted by a skilled artisan using "Clear Havana" tobacco from the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba.

ybor factory in 1887The skilled cigarmakers, mostly Spanish, were well paid, based upon their skills and speed. They often were in charge of the all important apprenticeship system training new artisans.

Cigarmakers were paid $28.00 per 1,000 for the top perfecto brand cigars while the inexpensive cherutos cigars often commanded a price of just $8.00 per thousand in 1910. Custom jobs were only done by top artisans since the reputation of the brand was impacted by these famous customers.

The skilled cigarmakers had a great deal of economic and social power until the 1930's, for they could always be recruited by other firms. They selected their own hours and often left the factories to dine on Seventh Avenue or visit a club.

cigar workers in 1924

The top cigarmakers' wives were rarely in the work place. This was in part the traditional role of the wife in Spain or Cuba, but also related to the status of the women who worked in the factories. As time went on more women entered the cigar factory, but not in the top artisan jobs.

Sanchez-Haya, first factory in Ybor, 1885
1927 factory workers in Ybor City

Management and ownership of Ybor City's cigar factories  which came from Cuba, Key West, and New York. Even when ownership was Anglo or British, Spaniards maintained most of the salaried positions: foremen, managers, skilled clerical workers, accountants, and salesmen. Even a pro-Cuban independence manufacturer like Ybor had a professional staff that was Spanish.

selecting tobacco for cigarsrolling a cigar in 1940'sSpanish workers also dominated the positions of resagadores (wrapper selectors) and escogedores (packers), who played the key role of quality control of distribution and value. Each year's tobacco crop was not uniform nor was the tobacco harvest consistent.

the worting room in Ybor City factoryrolling the outer tobacco wrapperThe Spanish controlled the job of chavatero (knife sharpener) and any position in charge of the maintenance of factory equipment.

the tobacco presspressing the cigarsclipping the ends of the cigars

Cubans rolled most of the cheaper cigars, often from leftover tobacco or lower quality tobacco. Cubans did rise to higher positions and many opened smaller shops, but the ethnic stratification of many factories was against such promotions.

1940 cigar workers in Ybor CityBy 1900 more and more women entered the cigar industry, mostly in the positions at the stripping tables, later in boxing the cigars. As second and third generation male Hispanics left the cigarmaking industry, women became an important labor source.

women cigar workers in 1940'sa cigar box checkerThe development of mechanized, more inexpensive cigars clearly opened job opportunities for women. Skilled artisans would not accept such positions even in a poor economy.

Italians entered the cigarmaking industry at the lowest ladder, often working in small factories. Salaries in such jobs were insufficient for most and they found jobs in retail commerce.

factory workers in 1940 postcard1947 cigar boxers

Afro-Cubans, Italians, women, and African-Americans handled most of the jobs that did not relate to the manufacturing of cigars. The building maintenance jobs, the transportation and shipping jobs, and general labor jobs were usually held by Afro-Cubans, Italians, and African-Americans.

Transportation of construction materials between downtown and Ybor City was usually handled by Tampa's African-American population, who resided in "the Scrub" between downtown, the port, and Ybor City.

One of the great symbolic sources of conflict between the workers and management throughtout Ybor City's cigar industry history was the institution of el lector, the person who sat on a raised platform (la tribuna), reading news and stories to the workers. The practice developed in Cuba, and became a major issue in any worker negotiations.

1930 lector reading in an Ybor factoryLectors were hired and paid by the workers, who treasured the right to select the reading materials. Prior to 1898 the concern by management included the issue of Cuban independence; after 1900, the issue was the anti-management, pro-proletarian themes of the literature. Socialist, anarchist, and communist literature mixed with local news and popular novels like Emile Zola and Miguel de Cervantes.

Since the workers selected the publications and novels, the lector was a voice piece for the workers. Talented lectors commanded great salaries as well as great resentment by the manufacturers.

The decline of the lector was signalled as a decline of the workers' movement and their continual struggle against the manufactuers. Unfortunately, forces beyond the control of both the skilled cigarmakers and the manufacturers would forever change the cigarmaking industry and end an entire Ybor City culture.