Explorer Christopher Columbus is generally credited with the introduction of tobacco to Europe. Three of Columbus’s crewmen during his 1492 journey, Rodrigo de Jerez, Hector Fuentes and Luis de Torres, are said to have encountered tobacco for the first time on the island of Hispaniola, in what is present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, when natives presented them with dry leaves that spread a peculiar fragrance. Tobacco was widely diffused among all of the islands of the Caribbean and therefore they again encountered it in Cuba where Columbus and his men had settled. His sailors reported that the Taínos on the island of Cuba smoked a primitive form of cigar, with twisted, dried tobacco leaves rolled in other leaves such as palm or plantain.
In due course, Spanish and other European sailors adopted the hobby of smoking rolls of leaves, as did the Conquistadors, and smoking primitive cigars spread to Spain and Portugal and eventually France, most probably through Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, who gave his name to nicotine. Later, the hobby spread to Italy and, after Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyages to the Americas, to Britain. Smoking became familiar throughout Europe—in pipes in Britain—by the mid-16th century. In 1542, tobacco started to be grown commercially in America, when the Spaniards established the first cigar factory on the island of Cuba. Tobacco was originally thought to have medicinal qualities, but there were some who considered it evil. It was denounced by Philip II of Spain and James I of England.
Around 1592, the Spanish galleon San Clemente brought 50 kilograms (110 lb) of tobacco seed to the Philippines over the Acapulco-Manila trade route. The seed was then distributed among the Roman Catholic missionaries, where the clerics found excellent climates and soils for growing high-quality tobacco on Philippine soil.
In the 19th century, cigar smoking was common, while cigarettes were still comparatively rare. In the early 20th century, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous smoking poem, “The Betrothed.” The cigar business was an important industry, and factories employed many people before mechanized manufacturing of cigars became practical.
In 1869, Spanish cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his Principe de Gales (Prince of Wales) operations from the important cigar manufacturing center of Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida to escape the turmoil of the Ten Years’ War. Other manufacturers followed, and Key West became another important cigar manufacturing center. In 1885, Ybor moved again, buying land near the then-small city of Tampa, Florida and building the largest cigar factory in the world at the time in the new company town of Ybor City. Friendly rival and Flor de Sánchez y Haya owner Ignacio Haya built his own factory nearby in the same year, and many other cigar manufacturers soon followed, especially after an 1886 fire that gutted much of Key West. Thousands of Cuban and Spanish tabaqueros came to the area from Key West, Cuba and New York to produce hundreds of millions of cigars annually. Local output peaked in 1929, when workers in Ybor City and West Tampa rolled over 500,000,000 “clear Havana” cigars, earning the town the nickname “Cigar Capital of the World”.
In New York, cigars were made by rollers working in their own homes. It was reported that as of 1883, cigars were being manufactured in 127 apartment houses in New York, employing 1,962 families and 7,924 individuals. A state statute banning the practice, passed late that year at the urging of trade unions on the basis that the practice suppressed wages, was ruled unconstitutional less than four months later. The industry, which had relocated to Brooklyn and other places on Long Island while the law was in effect, then returned to New York.
As of 1905, there were 80,000 cigar-making operations in the United States, most of them small, family-operated shops where cigars were rolled and sold immediately. While most cigars are now made by machine, some, as a matter of prestige and quality, are still rolled by hand. This is especially true in Central America and Cuba, as well as in small chinchales found in virtually every sizable city in the United States.