How to Use
Reading 2: Ybor City's Cigar Workers
The men and women of Ybor City who made the hand-rolled cigars earned good wages for the times and had a certain amount of control over their work day. Because they were paid by the number of cigars they turned out each day rather than by the hour, they set their own rate of production. These cigar workers were artisans, and the goal for both the factory owner and the individual worker was to produce perfect handcrafted cigars.
The first step in cigar manufacturing was to age the filler, binder, and wrapper tobacco under controlled climate conditions. Then they were prepared for blending with different tobacco types to control the flavor. Next, workers called "strippers" selected and stripped from the tobacco plant the leaves to carry to the cigar makers. From a supply of leaves beside him, a cigar maker picked up several filler leaves of tobacco, laying them one by one on the palm of the hand until he could tell by the weight that he had enough for the cigar. Each of the filler leaves had to be pointed in just the right direction so that the cigar would burn evenly and hold its ash properly. The filler was then wrapped with a binder to form a "bunch" (see Drawing 1). Then the wrapper leaf was placed on a wood board and trimmed, the bunch placed on top of it, and the cigar was rolled in one smooth, flowing motion. The wrapper was sealed with a dab of gum tragacanth, the sap of a tree grown in Iran. The worker then trimmed the finished cigar with his blade (a thin wedge-shaped steel knife), and it was ready for seasoning (or storage) for up to three years before it was considered aged enough to be sold. Workers called "pickers" sorted the finished cigars according to color, size, and shade to ensure that all cigars in a box would look roughly the same. Packers then took the sorted cigars, placed a paper ring on each one and put them in the boxes that were then ready to be shipped and sold.
Each worker in the factories' large workrooms contributed about 25 cents per week for the services of lectors (readers). A lector sat on a platform above the workers and in a loud, clear voice, read through several daily newspapers, often commenting on their contents. He also might read aloud from Spanish poets, or from the works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of novels, plays, and tales. Cervantes' Don Quixote has long been one of the world's best loved books (perhaps better known now from the musical, Man of La Mancha). Because they listened to the reader for several hours a day, the workers probably were better informed than most Americans of the time. These readers were talented, well-paid men who commented on the news with wit or irony and who used their voices to indicate different characters in the poems and novels they read.
After work hours, most cigar workers took advantage of Ybor City's mutual aid societies. Different ethnic groups founded these social and cultural organizations to help members adapt to a new land while retaining their ethnic traditions. Mutual aid society members could gather at their clubhouse to socialize over dominoes or cards, attend a performance or dance, or participate in a variety of other recreational activities. However, these societies provided more than entertainment. For a small fee collected weekly from their members, clubs contracted with doctors and hospitals to provide medical care. The societies also operated pharmacies and provided burial services for their members. The Spanish-speaking population founded four of these clubs. Italian and German immigrants each established a club as well.
El Centro Espanol, founded in 1891, was the first mutual aid society in Ybor City. To join, applicants had to be either Spaniards by birth or loyal to Spain. Members paid 25 cents a week to enjoy social privileges as well as death and injury benefits. In 1975 the club still had some 2,000 members who used its restaurant and coffee shop, and attended movies during the week and live performances on weekends. El Centro Espanol has been vacant, however, since the mid-1980s. Three of Ybor City's mutual aid society clubhouses, El Centro Asturiano, El Circulo Cubano, and L'Unione ltaliana, have remained in continuous use since they were constructed in the first quarter of the 20th century. By providing everyday services such as recreation and medical care, Ybor City's mutual aid societies successfully helped immigrant residents maintain their ethnic identity while adapting to life in a new country.
Questions for Reading 2
1. In your own words, how was a hand-rolled cigar made?
2. How did lectors make the cigar makers' workplace more pleasant? How did they affect the workers' knowledge of politics?
3. Why were mutual aid societies founded? What services did they provide for their members?
4. Do you think that the life of immigrants in Ybor City was better or worse than that of most immigrants in America during the same time period? Why?
Compiled from James H. Charleton, "Ybor City Historic District" (Hillsborough County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; Charles A. Harner, A Pictorial History of Ybor City (Tampa: Trend Publications, Inc., 1975); Allen Freeman, "A Sense of Belonging," Historic Preservation (March/April 1994): 29-34, 118-19; Michael Zimny, "Cradles of Mutual Aid," Florida Heritage (Winter 1995): 16-19; Gary Mormino and George E. Pozzetta, "The Cradle of Mutual Aid: Immigrant Cooperative Societies in Ybor City," Tampa Bay History 7, no. 2 (1985): 36-55; and information provided by Robin Gonzalez, Education Coordinator, Tampa Preservation, Inc.