Cigar making in Colorado constituted one of the state’s earliest industries during the nineteenth century, lending an air of sophistication to the fledgling Colorado Territory. Cigar making employed thousands of Coloradans across the state during the late 1800s and early 1900s, before mechanization overtook the industry in the 1920s. Although cigars are not as popular as they were in the early twentieth century, a community of connoisseurs keeps the industry afloat today.
Fifty-niners—Americans from the East and Midwest who participated in the 1858–59 Colorado Gold Rush—brought a taste for the increasingly popular segar, which replaced chewing tobacco and the pipe as the favored form of tobacco consumption in the West. In the 1860s, the northern European and English spelling “segar” was used, but soon the higher-quality cigar made in Cuba and the Caribbean won out, as did the Spanish spelling. The Ninth US Census revealed that no cigar manufacturing business operated in Colorado in 1860 or 1870. The first business directories of the Colorado Territory, published in 1866, advertised the retail sale of cigars, but they did not mention cigar manufacturers until 1873. On June 28, 1873, the Rocky Mountain News printed an advertisement for John Winker, a cigar maker at 398 Larimer Street. Denver’s business directory had listed Winker as a seller of cigars two years prior. He may well have been rolling his own for sale by 1872; that year, $18,000 worth of cigars—about 250,000 of them—were made in Denver.
The Cigar in Colorado
Cigar manufacturing shops grew fast as the population of the territory and the popularity of the cigar increased. The number of cigars smoked per person rose from twenty-six in 1860 to seventy-five in 1910. The National Tobacco Trade Directory listed one shop in Golden, one in Central City, and three in Georgetown, though most were in Denver. In November 1876, the year Colorado became a state, Denver hosted the annual Cigar Maker’s Ball. By 1882, Fort Collins had its own cigar maker—Charles Lautenbach—who opened a shop in the Vanderwark Block of Jefferson Street. The Fort Collins Courier reported his arrival on August 10. Lautenbach rolled his cigars by hand instead of using the wooden molds that were coming into use to save time and standardize the shape and size of a cigar. He later moved his Factory 138 to 210 Linden Street.
Ed Kreutzer, a well-known settler in Douglas County, homesteaded land at the top of Jarre Canyon and operated a cigar shop in Sedalia. His wife took the monthly output of their cigars—Douglas County Belles—into Denver by train and made the rounds of their Denver customers. Kreutzer listed his business in the Colorado Business Directory from 1882 through 1905 and was one of the seven charter members of Local 129 of the International Cigar Makers’ International Union of America. His son, William Kreutzer, would become the first official forest ranger in the United States, patrolling forests near his father’s old homestead.
Local manufacturers sprang up across the state throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s. At each of these new shops and factories, skilled craftspeople worked at custom-made benches, rolling cigars with the help of specialized knives, molds, bunchers, and presses. The owners shipped in the tobacco by rail from wholesalers in Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Cigars could be made by anyone with patience and a sensitive touch, and both men and women made them in Colorado, although the vast majority of cigar makers were men. At the end of the nineteenth century, Germans and Belgians from the European cigar-rolling shops came to the United States, and then to Colorado, with the tide of immigrants moving west. Cubans and other Latinos were highly sought after as employees, especially if they had experience rolling cigars in Havana or Tampa. Many opened their own businesses throughout the United States, including Colorado—between 1910 and 1920, more than half of Denver’s cigar makers were Cuban. The 1904 census listed 117 cigar establishments employing 632 people statewide. Denver had 56 of those establishments, employing 435 workers. The Denver shops averaged eight workers per shop, while those in the rest of the state averaged just three.
The average piece rate for cigars in Denver was around fifteen dollars per thousand cigars produced. A cigar maker rolled and turned in at least 200 cigars a day, making between fifteen and twenty dollars a week—good wages at the time. In 1913 the Solis Cigar Company employed eighty-six cigar makers at an average weekly salary of $16.38. The Cuban Cigar Company employed forty-four rollers at $17.44 a week. Those who were much faster could produce nearly 400 cigars per day, almost doubling their weekly salary.
The International Cigar Makers’ International Union of America was one of the strongest unions in the country in the early twentieth century, and it played an important role in the lives of Colorado cigar makers, members or not. Unions in the United States were at the height of their popularity, and a large segment of the population would only buy products made by union labor. Cigar unions spent part of their members’ dues marketing cigars from shops that hired union members. They paid for and supplied the blue union label that, when attached to a cigar box, signified union-made cigars. They took out advertisements in local newspapers and trade journals specifying which cigar brands were union made.
The union-influenced prices for cigars effected nearly every trend in the cigar industry. From 1870, over 70 percent of all cigars retailed for a nickel each. Higher quality brands could go for more, but the man on the street bought most for five cents. Over time, the rising cost of the cigar maker’s labor put pressure on business owners. The cigar union was aggressive and struck often, contesting working conditions, the number of free cigars given to union members, the quality of tobacco leaf, working hours, and the piece rate paid per thousand cigars. As owners dared not raise prices, they made up for mounting overhead costs in other ways, such as the cigar mold box. The box allowed lower-paid, less-experienced workers to make a living rolling cigars.
Slowly, cigar shop owners changed the process. Instead of each cigar maker performing every step of the rolling process, owners divided the steps so that cheaper labor using machinery could do most of the cigar making. Owners also tried to bust the union by hiring women (particularly immigrant women), who were willing to work for a lower piece rate. Although nearly all Colorado cigar makers were men, some experienced women did come to the state to roll cigars, and some had their own shops. A photograph of the Solis Cigar factory in Denver in about 1914 showed 32 women among the 145 faces in the picture. Women owned shops in Boulder, Denver, Florence, La Junta, Pueblo, Monte Vista, and Rocky Ford.
Between 1915 and 1920, owners closed strong union shops and moved them to areas without unions that had large populations of immigrants willing to work at lower piece rates. The owners built their new shops using the latest equipment and cheap non-union labor. In 1919 the American Machine and Foundry Company finally succeeded in producing cigars by machine. One machine could make 8,000–10,000 cigars a day, compared to the 250 that a cigar maker could roll. It did not take long for the larger shops to convert, putting many cigar makers out of work.
Mechanization changed the industry forever. Cigar makers left their benches for other careers; no further apprentices were trained and the union shriveled away to a shell of its former self. Cigar-rolling machines, the popularity of the cigarette, and better-endowed national corporations quickly eliminated the local cigar business. Although cigars have been produced by machine for the last century, modern tastes have sparked a renewed demand for hand-rolled, high-quality cigars from the Caribbean.
Adapted from William Reich, “‘Colorado Maid’: The Ghost Industry of Colorado Cigar Making,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 25, no. 2 (2005).