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Cigar Box Labels

In the 1800s, Cuban cigars had a reputation for high quality. During the Ten Years War (1868–79), when Cuba unsuccessfully fought for independence from Spain, many of the island’s cigar makers immigrated to Key West where they worked in the local cigar industry. The influx of skilled workers who rolled cigars by hand brought the establishment of more factories, and Key West’s cigar industry grew rapidly. However, labor unrest, a major strike in 1885, and a massive fire the next year caused many cigar manufacturers to leave Key West. After the 1885 strike, Key West cigar maker Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his operations to Tampa, to an area that became known as Ybor City. In the 1890s, businessman Hugh Macfarlane started West Tampa for the same purpose. The shift of the industry to Tampa greatly impacted the town, turning it from a small coastal community with a population of less than 1,000 to a vibrant, ethnically-diverse city of more 100,000 residents in 1930. Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, and other immigrants labored in Tampa’s cigar factories. Many women also were employed in the factories.

Tampa became the capital for the manufacture of fine, hand-rolled cigars using imported Cuban tobacco. At its peak in the 1920s, about 10,000 people worked in Tampa’s cigar industry. Approximately 200 cigar factories were operating, turning out some 500,000,000 cigars in 1929 alone. However, the industry was in decline by the mid-1930s. The introduction of machines that could mass produce cigars replaced many cigar workers. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rising popularity of cigarettes also impacted the industry. The embargo of Cuban tobacco in 1962 due to the political situation in that country marked the end of the Cuban cigar in the United States. Today, Ybor City is a National Historic Landmark District.

In the late 1800s, cigar makers began adopting colorful, artistic labels for cigar boxes. The labels were designed to catch the consumer’s eye and make the cigars stand out from rival brands. Labels might include representations of famous historical figures, celebrities of the day, or landmarks such as prominent buildings. Some cigar box labels incorporated patriotic symbols, taking advantage of the patriotism spurred by the Spanish-American War (1898). Embossed gilding on labels became popular in the 1890s and was used in text and in decoration such as coins, medals, or other embellishments. The labels shown here are part of an extensive collection of more than 1500 cigar box labels in the Museum of Florida History collection. They range in date from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s and provide a colorful look at Florida’s cigar-making past.