White Labor
A National Cigar Museum Exhibit
© Tony Hyman
From an 1875 cigar
box made in Calif.
NCM Home                            Cigar History
Magazine ad;
1886 issue  
of The Wasp
published by
Korbel who
went on to
winery fame.
      The cigar industry’s Trade Directory of 1867 lists 47 factories in San Francisco, and 309 elsewhere in the state, most of them one man factories serving gold-rush mining camps.  The 1875 Directory lists 187 San Francisco factories (Chiu claims 251). The 1886 Directory lists 265 San Francisco factories and only 120 scattered through the rest of the state, the result of the gold-rush factories shutting-down. All 15 California factories which employed more than 100 rollers in 1886 were located in San Francisco.  Englebrecht (now without Levy) was down to 40 rollers. It is claimed by Chiu and other writers that three-quarters of Chinese factories hid behind Spanish names. Listings in the 1886 Directory do not confirm that as more than 40 factories clearly have Chinese names and the vast majority of factories have Caucasian, not Spanish, names.
Info from McCunn, Saxton, Chiu, Trade Directories, period newspapers, other sources
   This rare
business card
was found in
the walls of
a log cabin
in the woods
of British
Columbia in
the 1980’s.
Canada was
home to many
Chinese and
their history
is similar in
many ways.
   The President of the San Francisco Union Local traveled east and recruited a disappointing 400 rollers to come to California by offering reduced railroad fares. The imported workers discovered West Coast wages to be less than promised, rebelled, demanded raises from $2 to $4 per thousand cigars.
    With few exceptions the Easterners were not successful, factories continued to employ Asians, and within a year most of the Union men returned to their homes in the East.
    Ultimately, local harassment and the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 drove many Chinese out of the cigar business, into more profitable and less contentious industries. It has been claimed by modern writers that when the Chinese left so did the vitality of the California cigar industry, but data doesn’t bear that out. Golden State production surpassed that of Florida until the 20th century, remaining in the top 15 cigar states until the machine age began after World War One.
    Chinese were also employed in the cigar box industry, manufacturing about 1/6th of all California-made boxes in 1881. In 1904, there were five box factories in San Francisco, employing 140 workers,
80 of whom were Chinese.
[0000]   Walk races were a popular sport in the 1870’s, the decade of this card
                ridiculing cigars made by Chinese or made in NYC tenement houses.
KEY WEST HAVANA cigars made in Western NY,
sold in Colusa, California gold country in 1883.
        White factories that survived the Chinese incursion tended to be small marginal factories who were struggling against better capitalized large companies as well as the Chinese. These cigar makers formed affiliations such as The White Co-Operative Cigar Manufacturing Co., pledging to fight what they saw as encroachment on both cigar quality and racial purity. Promoting White Labor with newspaper ads, business cards and box labels proclaiming their cigars to be hand made in a white factory by white workmen became important ways to differentiate their product. Placards were posted in stores that committed themselves to boycott Chinese-made goods.  During the heart of the depression of the 1870’s, support from the anti-Chinese segment of the population kept them going.  Their drive was so effective that Eastern cigar makers began adding “WHITE LABOR” notations on their boxes to help them sell in the California market.
[10172] Chinatown cigar factory                                   [0477]  Chinatown factory interior
    By 1866, half the city’s four dozen cigar factories were Chinese owned. Starting a cigar factory required minimal capital. One-man could start a factory for less than $5. To set up a storefront with 20 or 30 rollers could be done for $300 or so. It wasn’t long before the Chinese controlled three-quarters of the profitable Western cigar business by starting factories and brutally exploiting their own countrymen.  A typical Chinese factory was about fifteen by twenty with a gallery dividing a standard room with 9 or 10 foot ceilings into a two story factory in which 50 people worked. “After all,” the logic went, “cigar rollers don’t need room to stand while working.”
        By 1868, the annual value of San Francisco-made cigars had risen from a few thousand dollars to more than a million and California had replaced Massachusetts as the fourth largest cigar producing state.
        Other white factory owners, especially larger ones, began hiring Chinese, who made up 8% of California’s population but 25% of the available work-force-for-hire.
        By 1870, just eleven years after Englebrecht and Levy made their fateful offer, the Chinese were respon-sible for 80% of the cigars rolled west of the Rockies. Chinese-owned companies began opening new factories in Boston, New York and Vancouver.
         Opinions about the quality of Chinese cigars differ. Some modern writers claim the cigars were as good, but that certainly wasn’t the image promulgated by the white factories. Cigarmakers nation-wide viewed the chinese as a symbol of the drop in quality when moulds were permitted.
         A decade of particularly violent anti-Chinese sentiment began.
        On the appointed day, literally hundreds of Chinese lined up outside the Front Street factory, eager to be taught. The partners personally marched down the ranks choosing likely looking fellows to train. By the end of the day they had selected a reported 200 new workers and begun their lessons. Other cigar makers were incensed by Englebrecht & Levy breaking the industry’s traditional racial barriers. The local Segar Maker’s Association opposed the hiring of Chinese. In 1859 the Daily Alta Californian claimed it “will prove destructive to the general welfare, and retard the advance of civilization and the manifest destiny of our country.”
        In 1860, the Englebrecht & Levy factory with its Chinese workers was booming. Business had never been so good. But, during the next few years the partners learned they had made an irreversible mistake. The men they hired were not, as they  assumed, coolies from the bottom of the Chinese social ladder. Many were well educated Chinese business and professional people anxious to learn the secrets of cigar making as their opening to living the American dream. They learned their lesson well.  
No evidence exists as to when moulds arrived
in the U.S. Some writers claim a date as late as 1870. Most place it in the 1860’s. If you care, write me and I’ll explain why I think it’s earlier.   [4991]
       They could make that offer thanks to the recent introduction of a revolutionary new tool from Germany, the cigar mould.* Prior to the late 1850’s, cigar had been an all-hand craft, requiring a minimum of two or three years formal apprenticeship. The use of moulds made it possible for unskilled workers to form cigars after only a month or two practice by placing their half-made cigars in wooden moulds for a few hours to form them into the appropriate shape. An experienced hand roller working by himself could make 250 to 350 cigars a day. However, if he worked with two mould workers, putting on only the final outside wrapper instead of shaping the entire cigar, the three person team could turn out 750-1000 a day or more. Three people still made the same number of cigars, but mould workers got paid less, often one-fifth as much, so a cigar company could cut production costs substantially.
In 1874, the friends were still in business.
Cigars wholesaled from 3¢ to 4.5¢ each.    [10176]
    In 1859, Herman Englebrecht and H.L. Levy saw an opportunity to make a great deal of money if they could expand their small San Francisco cigar company. Cigar smoking was on the rise, but their rapidly growing city had been reduced to eleven tiny cigar factories. Other cigar makers had succumbed to the lure of the gold fields. Englebrecht and Levy knew that enlarging their operation would not be easy for the rush had left only twenty-one skilled cigar rollers in the entire city, and that counted the two who worked for them.
        The two partners discussed their options for weeks before deciding to take advantage of the surplus of cheap Chinese labor. Once this radical decision was made, the two entrepreneurs pasted posters throughout Chinatown, promising to teach a valuable new trade to accepted applicants.
      Factories employing Chinese mould-workers defended themselves, pointing out there weren’t enough white workers to fill their factories.
    In the early 1880’s The Cigar Makers’ Union entered the fray, demanding that factories fire Chinese workers as of January 1, 1886, or as soon as white workers became available. In exchange the CMIU pledged to provide skilled rollers.
    This story on the front page of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin (June 5, 1882) reports the goal was to recruit 500 to 1,500 rollers from New York City in an effort to help replace the 3,500 Chinese then working in the City by the Bay.
The original of this paper is not in the NCM collection.