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A Closer Look At The Surprising Origin Of Cigars

You might think that the world's first cigars were rolled in Spain, or that the philosophic French were the very first to wax existential over cigarette smoke, but before there were any cigars or cigarettes in the old world, tobacco had to be brought in from the new one. Tobacco is a plant that was originally found only in North and South America, where native Americans have cultivated it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Indigenous Mayans of the Mexican Yucatan peninsula grew tobacco plants, and there is evidence showing that they smoked it in ways similar to the way we do today.

From its origins in Mexico, tobacco use spread from tribe to tribe, to the north and to the south. Historians now believe that the first tobacco use in what is now the United States occurred along the banks of the Mississippi river. And it wasn't until Christopher Columbus famously ran into Central America while looking for India that Europe and Asia became acquainted with tobacco and its uses.

When he arrived in the Caribbean, Columbus was apparently not a very big fan of the flavor of tobacco, and was not keen on the way the people he encountered used it to smoke. His sailors, though, thought the stuff was amazing and started to smoke it themselves. When they returned to Spain, they brought tobacco back with them and shared it with people back home. It spread through the county like wildfire. And it wasn't long before the French too were lighting up. Incidentally, it is from the name of the French ambassador to Spain, Jean Nicot, that the scientific name for tobacco Nicotiana tabacum and the word nicotine comes.

The word tobacco itself has a disputed origin, though the majority of people now believe that it is simply a corruption of the name of a Caribbean island, Tobago. Some others contend that it originates from Tabasco, a region of Mexico. The first tobacco to be commercially cultivated in the United States was planted in the state of Virginia in 1612. Very soon thereafter plantations popped up in Maryland and elsewhere. At this point, people smoked their tobacco mostly in pipes. It wasn't until the late 18th century that cigars began to be smoked in the United States.

The person who is said to have brought cigar smoking to the US is Israel Putnam. Putnam served in the Revolutionary War as a general, but afterwards, and more importantly for posterity, he traveled to Cuba and smoked the cigars that were made there. On returning to the US he brought back a box of those cigars with him. Almost overnight cigars were smoked everywhere and soon cigar factories popped up, significantly in the area around Putnam's hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. Cigars weren't very popular in Europe until the Peninsula War that occurred in the beginning of the 19th century. The soldiers of Britain and France who fought in Spain during the war brought back tobacco and pipes with them to their homelands, and soon, again, tobacco use in those countries was prevalent.

But it was among the fashionable upper classes that cigar smoking took hold. Even today, smoking cigars is something that is associated with the luxury and discernment afforded to those with discerning tastes and the means to satisfy them.

Gregg Hall is an author living in Navarre Florida. Find more about this as well as cuban cigars at

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