Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Cigar Maker

My grandfather (right), cigar store proprietor;
the helpers wearing aprons worked with the cigars -- early 1920s

Genealogical research yields are so many small revelations, like when I found out that my mother’s father had been widowed before he married her mother, and that the wife who died had been pregnant.

Those types of discoveries, not advertised by, have the potential to shock and hurt. However, that is not always the case.

Me:       Mom, what would you say if I told you that your father had been married previously?

Mom:   At my age, nothing would surprise me.

Her father, Joseph Stromberg, emigrated along with nearly two million Jews from Russia to the United States during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. During these years, Russian Jews were subjected to unspeakably violent pogroms conducted by the Cossacks, which Czar Nicholas tacitly encouraged. The Ukrainian town of Letichev, where Joseph lived, underwent a wave of brutality between 1903 and 1906.

Joseph’s story is not remarkable; notable perhaps because he was just 14 years old and traveled alone. On November 5, 1906, he boarded the ship Smolensk, which departed from the port of Libau, in western Latvia on the Baltic Sea, arriving at Ellis Island on November 23.

The next time Joseph showed up was in 1916, petitioning for naturalization. He renounced all allegiance and fidelity to “Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias.” And his occupation was “cigar manufacturer.”

Cigar manufacturing in the United States, like much of what is learned about American history, reveals itself to be a story about labor strife. Often, cigar makers worked in the tenements where they lived and the entire family participated. Ribbons of leaves were stripped from the stems, the smaller leaves crushed and assembled, and the ribbons carefully rolled around the filler and secured with vegetable paste.

Larger shops had division of labor. “Casers” prepared the leaves by moistening and bending them. “Strippers” removed the large ribs of the leaves and stems. “Bunchbreakers” prepared the filler. “Rollers” rolled the filler, wrapped the strips of leaves around it, and cut the open ends. “Packers” put the finished cigars in boxes.

The English-born Samuel Gompers, who became the first president of the American Federation of Labor, started as a shoemaker’s apprentice at the age of seven but switched to cigar making when his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1863.

Within a few years Gompers had become a master cigar maker and moved to a larger shop where he was influenced by German socialists. In 1875, when the Cigar Makers International Union (CMIU) merged with United Cigar Makers of New York, Local 144, Samuel Gompers became its president.

Subsequently, Gompers began lobbying the New York State Legislature to ban cigar manufacturing in tenement houses. In 1882, he published a report about the working conditions of tenement cigar makers.

No. 90 Cannon St. is a five story double tenement house. Fifteen families live in the house, an average of four on each floor. Each family has a room and a bedroom; the size of the room is 11 by 13 feet, the bedroom 5-1/2 by 7-1/2 feet . . . *

The families worked from 6 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. The rooms were filthy, filled with tobacco residue. Worst of all were the discarded tobacco stems, which became rotten and moldy, discarded in piles in the corners of the rooms.

In 1883, the New York State Legislature passed a bill abolishing cigar making in tenements. But the manufacturers danced around it and despicable conditions persisted. Cigar manufacturers and the CMIU continued to do battle for years.

Cigar Makers Journal, published by the Cigar Makers International Union
between 1875 and 1972

Who knows if Joseph Stromberg worked in tenement conditions? I think not (perhaps I would rather think not) because he lived in a part of Brooklyn where there were houses, no tenements. Either way, he made cigars until 1919 when he married Sarah Litowitz, the daughter of a shirt manufacturer who owned a factory that employed 77 people.

In the 1920 census, Joseph described his occupation as collar manufacturing, so he probably went to work for his father-in-law.   

But Sarah died of eclampsia in the spring of 1920. That is a dangerous condition of pregnancy involving very high blood pressure.

Joseph stopped making collars and returned to cigars, but this time he started his own shop with its own brand, “Dick Robin.”

He remarried in 1927. He met my grandmother because he was a boarder in my great-grandmother’s house.

Joseph remained a cigar store proprietor until the early 1930s, when he went into the luncheonette business. But that’s another story.

My grandfather advertised his own cigar brand,
"Dick Robin," in The Retail Tobacconist, 1922.

*Cannon Street is now an alley on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


  1. I love this entry SO MUCH. It's like an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" my other favorite show besides "Finding Your Roots."

  2. Fabulous story. I can just imagine whole families rolling up cigars in the living rooms. Your great grand dad was a survivor. Great blog!


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