Inside an abandoned cigar factory

Bullet of Abandoned Florida provides us with a rare look inside an early 20th century cigar factory: West Tampa's Balbin Brothers Cigar Factory.

Life as a cigar factory worker

Inside the factory there was a hierarchy of workers, which in most cases was organized along ethnic lines. Workers were divided into those paid by the work they performed and those on salaries. The premier salaried positions included foremen, managers, accountants, salesmen, and other clerical staff, most of whom were Spaniards. Other salaried positions included knowledge selectors, who decided upon the wrapper leaves for the cigars, and packers, who sorted the tobacco leaves by color for different types of cigars. Packers also made sure that the cigar boxes contained cigars of one uniform color.

Next on the wage scale was the cigar makers themselves. Cigar makers were paid by the amount, size, and type of cigar they were trained to make, and accuracy and expediency were crucial skills to have in this process. Those who excelled at both these traits could produce 2,000 cigars a week, well above the 1,100 to 1,300 by an average skilled worker.

Further down the ladder were banders, strippers (who stripped the tobacco leaves from the stems), casers, and bunchers. Many of these tasks were performed by women and unskilled immigrants such as Afro-Cubans and Italians looking to work their way up to better positions. Due to the artisan work ethic and atmosphere of the cigar factory, many workers, especially cigar makers, were able to come and go as they pleased, with the freedom to choose their own schedule as long they performed the task they were assigned. Mormino and Pozetta observe that, “No other industry permitted blacks, Latin Americans, European immigrants, and women to labor side-by-side at the same workbench.”

One could say that the most important person to work in the cigar factory at this time was the lector. The lector was an honored position brought from Cuban factories to the cigar factories in Key West then Tampa a person with an excellent voice and cadence, who read to the cigar workers. What was exceptional about this tradition was that the cigar workers chose the material that would be read to them and paid the lector for his oratory services. The variety of topics read to the workers ranged from international news, politics, classical literature, and on many occasions propaganda resounding with socialistic fervor and anarchistic ideologies.40 Due to the sometimes radical nature of these readings, the cigar workforce could easily be polarized by current political events and labor issues, a situation of which factory owners and even local government officials were extremely wary. In the early-twentieth century, the lector would become a central issue that the manufacturers would look to control, for many thought they fomented dissent and encouraged costly strikes. Source: Tampa’s Historic Cigar Factories: Making A Case For Preservation