“Luxury item” is a term that conjures up images of haute couture clothing, automobiles, watches, foods and smoking accessories. It can also be a luxury service such as in a restaurant, hotel, or other such establishments. One such luxury item that has stood the test of time is the cigar, synonymous with famous historical figures such as Sir Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde, they are a consistent part of the luxury market.
The history of this longstanding tradition is an interesting one, with origins dating back much further than you might expect.
No doubt, you will think of cigars and immediately draw a connection in your mind to Cuba. The two are forever interlinked due to the premium cigars that Cuba produces year on year, a production process which dates back centuries as a result of the fertile lands of the country. These lands create the most ideal conditions for growing the elements that make up the perfect cigar – wrapper, filler, and binders.
The origin of the cigar is not thought to have been Cuba itself, but somewhere only a few miles across the Caribbean Sea in the Ancient Mayan civilisation. They are thought to have wrapped the tobacco in palm or plantation leaves, we know this as a pot from the tenth-century depicts a Mayan smoking such a ‘primitive cigar’. Despite having such evidence, however, it is not known exactly when the Mayans discovered tobacco as a smoking filler.
Europe discovered the luxury of tobacco smoking as a direct result of Christopher Columbus’s venture to the New World, during which he claimed Cuba on behalf of the nation of Spain in 1492. From this day, Spain had a tight stranglehold on the cigar market and they instilled strict regulations which included a mandate which meant all cigars exported from Cuba had to then be registered in Spain. This monopoly strengthened as Spain banned Cuban tobacco farmers from selling to any other country.
Such restrictions lasted until 1817, however, the growing popularity of cigars in Europe meant that such a monopoly could not last, and nineteenth-century Britain soon saw the rise of this luxury item.
Britain has been in love with the luxury of cigars for centuries. The James J. Fox business started in 1787 and is still operating from St James’ Street in London, meaning that we have witnessed the rise of cigars as luxury items with many famous patrons including Churchill, Wilde and many royals of both British and foreign nationality.
In the nineteenth century, Britain was heavily involved in the Peninsular War – a contest between the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and the combined might of Spain, Portugal, and Britain. This was primarily fought for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the larger conflict of the Napoleonic Wars. It was during this time that British soldiers came into contact with Spanish soldiers and were bestowed cigars as a gift from their foreign comrades. Due to Spain’s monopoly of the cigar production of Cuba, this would have been one of the first times that British nationals had access to cigars in such abundance.
Officers returned to Britain and brought cigars to gentlemen’s clubs up and down the country. They, in turn, sought ways to source finer examples of cigars for their enjoyment. They sought the very best Cuban-grown tobacco, which eventually resulted in the downfall of Spain’s control over the market as a result of this popularity. New clubs began to emerge in London, known as cigar divans, which catered exclusively to smokers. They became a fashionable place to be seen, resulting in more and more of the upper classes seeking out cigars.
Later, the cigar claimed more renown in British history as the constant companion of Winston Churchill. Famed as the Prime Minister that led Britain through the Second World War, he was a man that was rarely seen without a cigar in hand. Indeed, in popular culture, it is a cigar and British bulldog – a nickname bestowed upon him during this time – which people remember him for. His love for Cuban Romeo Y Julieta cigars is famed, so much so that a type of cigar vitola (the measurement of a cigar) was named ‘Churchill’ in honour of him.
From a soldier’s memento of war to a gentleman’s entry into a higher standing in society, the rise of cigars as a luxury item in Britain was swift; occurring over a few decades at most. The popularity of this luxury item has persisted ever since and is enjoyed as an after dinner treat alongside a strong glass of whisky to this day.
Written by Dirk Seyfried
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