The Key West Art & Historical Society is excited to partner with Comedy Key West to offer a series of fun historical lectures entitled ‘Happy Hour with the Historian’. Attendees will receive a complimentary drink (beer, house wine or soft drink), and treated to a short presentation by the historian.
The early 19th century witnessed the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a time of dramatic economic change when small cottage industries were replaced with large-scale factory production. On the heels of the Industrial Revolution, Cuba’s cigar making industry blossomed. Small tobacco farms were consolidated into large plantations for more efficient tobacco production, while displaced tobacco farmers found gainful employment as skilled cigar making artisans.
With Cuba’s cigar economy booming, people sought opportunities outside the country looking to make financial gains. Key West’s neighboring proximity to Cuba and its tobacco plantations, a mere 90 miles away, was the ideal place to establish cigar making factories. Samuel Seidenberg, a German immigrant, saw an opportunity to establish the first ‘clear Cuban’ cigar factory in Key West in 1867. By using Cuban laborers to roll Cuban grown tobacco, Seidenberg pioneered the idea of making authentic Cuban cigars in America. Within a few years, Cuban immigrants arrived by the thousands to seek employment in Key West’s burgeoning cigar industry.
Aside from the warm, humid climate which was ideal for maintaining a pliable tobacco leaf, a necessity for excellent cigar making, Seidenberg was able to lure immigrants with affordable housing, a neighborhood environment and gainful employment in the cigar trade. Before long, other cigar making factories opened in order to capitalize on the talents of cigar artisans. Enterprising manufacturers either moved their entire production to Key West or opened branch factories. By 1873, there were a total of 15 factories in Key West which employed over 1,200 workers.
By 1876, Key West’s 29 cigar factories were producing a staggering 62 million cigars annually. With a population of more than 18,000 people in 1890, Key West became the largest and wealthiest city in the state of Florida and one of the most influential in the nation. That year, more than 100 million cigars were handmade in Key West.
Despite the financial success of the cigar industry on the island, the inescapable progression to the unionization of workers and opposition from factory owners eventually drove many of the largest cigar makers to Tampa. The industry began manufacturing machine-made cigars that could be sold for a nickel, then the Great Depression hit in the 1930s. The expensive Cuban cigar simply could not compete. The heyday of the island’s cigar making was over, although the legacy and cultural impact of the cigar industry and its workers remains a vibrant part of modern Key West.
This project is sponsored in part by the Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture, the Florida Council on Arts and Culture and the State of Florida, with additional support provided by The Helmerich Trust and Comedy Key West.