Ask McGehee

According to early city directories, Mobile had 10 cigar dealers operating in 1869 but no manufacturers. That rapidly changed. In 1875 there were 19 cigar manufacturers listed.

A decade later, Mobile attempted to lure Vincente Martinez Ybor to establish a factory here. Ybor had successful cigar factories in Havana and Key West but was looking to expand. Mobile was not alone. The cities of Galveston and Pensacola were also courting Ybor, but unfortunately in 1885 he selected Tampa, Fla., a city soon synonymous with the word cigar.

Mobile and other Gulf cities attracted cigar makers for a number of reasons. They all had ready access to Cuba and Cuban tobacco. The Gulf Coast climate was warm and humid, which reportedly kept tobacco leaves fresh and workable for hand rolling. And with improved railroad lines and port access, the finished cigars could also be easily shipped.

A Melting Pot

The majority of cigar factories were built and operated by an interesting mix of Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Jews, and, in Mobile, Irish entrepreneurs. Patrick J. Lyons, of Irish descent, was president of the Martinez Cigar Factory. Leopold Strauss presided over the I.M. Cigar and Tobacco Company, named for the Infant Mystics. Royal Street also boasted two manufacturers, the B. Corrales Cigar Co. and the Pidal Cigar Factory. 

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Frohlichstein Cigar Manufactory was established in 1878, and by 1899 was producing three million cigars a year. Like the city’s other cigar makers, Frohlichstein named their products to honor local landmarks with their brands of “Monroe Park” and “Fidelia Club.”

Charles Lagman, a transplant from New Orleans, established his stogie factory on Armistead Street at the corner of what was known as Davis Avenue at the start of the 20th century. In a 1946 interview, he recalled employing an average of 50 men, each capable of rolling as many as 500 cigars a day. His brands included “Lagman’s Havana” and “E.L. Russell, ” which honored a much beloved local railroad executive.

From Boom to Bust

Cigar sales in the United States peaked in 1920 when an estimated 8.5 billion were sold. Due to the popularity of cigars, a number of national brands had been established, and these firms actively promoted the benefit of their machine-rolled cigars from a sanitary perspective. “Why run the risk of cigars made by dirty yellowed fingers dipped in spit?” asked their advertising campaigns.

By 1920, saloons, which had been a male enclave perfect for cigar smokers, disappeared with the advent of Prohibition. Suddenly men and women were happily drinking side by side in speakeasies, but they were not smoking cigars. The cigarette became the smoke of choice and was promoted by popular movie stars of both sexes.

The rise of the bootlegging gangster was another side effect of Prohibition, and also contributed to the decline in the cigar business. Hollywood films depicted him perpetually holding a tommy gun with a stogie clenched in his teeth, and the public quickly linked cigars to criminals. Sales plummeted, and with the ensuing stock market crash, the demand for luxury items such as hand-rolled cigars vanished.

By 1933, Mobile’s city directory listed only three cigar makers. A decade later that number was down to just one: Charles Lagman & Son, Cigar Makers. The last listing for Lagman Havana Cigars was in 1947.

The demise of the premium cigar business was a national one. Today the last remaining American producer is in the Ybor district of Tampa. And from recent reports, that firm may soon close its doors after nearly 120 years if the FDA follows through with increased restrictions on tobacco products.

Text by Tom McGehee

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