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Cigar History Part 1 – The Origins of Tobacco

tobacco plant
Tobacco.

The history of the cigar is entwined with the history of tobacco itself. In modern times, mentioning tobacco usually conjures an image of a cigarette, but cigarettes are a very modern phenomena. In fact, pipes and cigars were the way a vast majority of people enjoyed tobacco until the turn of the 20th century.

The first tobacco smokers were South and Central American natives back in the B.C. days. The Maya and Aztecs are known to have smoked tobacco and various psychoactive drugs in religious rituals. The Peruvian Aguaruna even used tobacco in their hallucinogenic enemas. Yikes!

The first crude cigars began to emerge around 500 A.D. as the Mayas scattered across the continent. These early cigars bore no resemblence to today’s finely manicured stogies, consisting of loose, dry tobacco rolled in palm and plantain leaves, corn husks or sometimes simply tied together with string. During this time tobacco was still a much-revered ingredient in spiritual and religious rites.

Christopher Columbus is given credit for introducing tobacco to the modern world, but it took him a while to realize why these “certain dry leaves” were something special. First given to Columbus as a gift from the natives, they were thrown out because the crew had no idea what to do with them. When tobacco finally made its way back to Europe, however, it really caught on.

Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, was an early adopter and even gave his name to tobacco’s most famous ingredient, nicotine. When folks realized they could grow tobacco in a wide variety of climates, the seeds began to travel far and wide.

At first, tobacco was praised for its medicinal purposes, though controversial due to the alarming appearance of smoke billowing from one’s mouth and nose. If you’ve never seen someone smoking this must have been an incredible sight indeed. This may be the origin of the idea that smoking makes you look cool. Some people ran scared, but as you can imagine, many said to themselves, “wow, I want to try that.”
At this point tobacco was considered by many to be medicinal. Andre Thevet, credited with the first written description of tobacco use in 1568, said that smoking tobacco cleans the “superfluous humours of the brain.” Anyone who’s enjoyed a cigar can attest to that.

Of course, in the modern age we know there are certain health risks to using tobacco, but examining its history as a central component of spiritual rituals does give some context to the positive, relaxing and stimulating effects of cigar smoking.

It would still take centuries for the hand-rolled cigar to exceed the popularity of the pipe. But when cigar manufacturing really got rolling, the cigar ascended to the most luxurious way to enjoy tobacco.