Tobacco in Cuba

Part of the ¡Cuba! exhibition.

Display shows tobacco leaves strung along wooden poles, as well as cuban cigar boxes and labels. A replica of a tobacco shed, in which farmers dry tobacco leaves to make Cuban cigars.
©AMNH/D. Finnin 

Growing and Rolling Tobacco

When Spanish sailors first explored Cuba in 1492, they returned with accounts of tall forests, chattering birds, and men and women going from place to place “with a firebrand of weeds in their hands to take in the fragrant smoke.”

Before long, Spanish colonists were growing and smoking tobacco too. As the demand for tobacco spread, the “weeds” became a profitable crop. Cuba opened its first cigar factories in the early 1800s. Today, cigars are still one of Cuba’s leading exports, shipped by the millions around the world.

Illustration of a man standing next to a tobacco plant and smoking tobacco.
An illustration of early tobacco usage.
Courtesy of George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library

Tobacco Harvest

To plant, tend and prepare fine tobacco for Cuban cigars, farmers use exacting methods passed down over generations. Working meticulously, they pick leaves one by one, string them along wooden poles, and hang them in sheds with vents that can open and close to control temperature and humidity. Over weeks, the leaves cure, losing water and turning from bright green to soft brown.

Worker in the middle of a tobacco field hangs tobacco leaves on a wooden rack.
An agricultural worker picks and dries tobacco leaves for cigar making.
© iStockphoto

Hand-Rolled in Havana

Every year, around 100 million premium cigars are handcrafted in Cuba. Professional rollers called torcedores make each one by combining leaves from different varieties of tobacco. Cigars are sorted by color, checked for flaws, and then boxed for sale.

Hands touching a large pile of rolled tobacco leaves.
Workers select tobacco leaves for Cuba's famed cigars.
© J. Azel/Aurora/AGE Fotostock

Community Reading

In a Havana cigar factory, a professional reader, or lector, reads aloud—her material can range from news articles to novels. This custom dates back to the 1800s, when readers on the tobacco floor played a role in spreading political ideas. Well-informed and well-organized, tobacco workers joined Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain in the late 1800s.

A woman stands at a lectern and reads to rows of seated cigar makers.
Cigar rollers go about their work while a colleague reads aloud to them.
© EPA European Pressphoto Agency BV/Alamy

Check out more of the exhibition—explore Cuba's Caves

Top photo: ©AMNH/D. Finnin