The history of the cigar dates back many centuries, but is relatively unknown, until Christopher Columbus’ journey to the West Indies in 1492. Some contend that the word cigar is derived from the Mayan word “sikar”, which means “to smoke”. It is generally believed that the cultivation and smoking of tobacco dates many years prior to Columbus’ arrival and was a part of many cultures in the Americas. Written records date back to the time when Columbus reached Cuba where native Indians on the island smoked a primitive from of cigar consisting of dried tobacco leaves rolled in other types of leaves. People of the West Indies also used tobacco for chew and snuff as it was thought to carry medicinal qualities.
Columbus, in turn, brought back this custom of tobacco smoking to Spain and Portugal. Soon after, France was introduced to tobacco in the mid 16th century through the influence of Jean Nicot, who at the time, was the French ambassador to Portugal. The origin of the word nicotine is attributed to Nicot as he sent seeds of the tobacco plant back to the royal family in France. In honor of Nicot, the word nicotine was derived from the botanical name given to tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum (the latin name for tobacco).
Several years after tobacco’s introduction into France, tobacco smoking made its first appearance in Italy and England when Sir Walter Raleigh returned from America. He brought tobacco back with him where the interest began to grow, mainly used in pipes as opposed to rolled leaves in the form of a cigar. By the end of the 16th century, tobacco smoking had spread throughout much of Western Europe and was mainly fashionable with the upper classes. The habit of tobacco smoking was associated with signs of wealth.
The commercial production of tobacco began in America sometime in the early 17th century beginning on tobacco plantations in Virginia, and then in Maryland. Although at this time, tobacco was only smoked in pipes in the Colonies. It wasn’t until around the mid 18th century when the cigar made its first appearance in America. While stationed in Cuba serving in the British Army, Israel Putnam acquired Cuban tobacco seeds and a collection of Havana cigars and brought them back to Connecticut. Soon after, cigar factories in Hartford were manufacturing cigars on a large scale using the tobacco seeds originating from Cuba. Mass production soon began in France, Holland, and Germany by the end of the 18th century.
It wasn’t until the time of the Civil War when cigar smoking became very popular in America. Cigars became the preferred method of tobacco smoking and remained synonymous with high social standing. As demand grew, the cigar industry flourished with Cuba leading the way, overtaking Spain in the production of cigars. The Cuban Cigar became their chief export, overcoming coffee in the mid 19th century. It became a national symbol and a recognized brand with the Havana Cigar setting the standard in excellence for the rest of the world.
The popularity of cigar smoking continued into the 20th century. However, after Castro overthrew Fulgenico Batista and took over the Cuban government, America imposed an embargo on the importation of Cuban goods which continues to this day. Many Cuban cigar-makers took their skills to other Caribbean islands and continued to produce high-quality, premium cigars for the American public. Today, the Dominican Republic is a central figure in the production of hand-made cigars that are sold in the United States.
In the 1960’s, the American Surgeon General’s report revealed many significant health implications related to smoking. This helped curtail the enthusiasm for cigarette and cigar smoking. Although recently in the 1990’s, cigar smoking has made a resurgence and once again became a popular social custom in American society. The cigar has been able to maintain a status symbol that many see as a more viable alternative to cigarette smoking. Today, the cigar maintains its dignified status as a social custom and can be seen enjoyed by men and women from all walks of life enjoying its refined taste and smell.
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