American Cigar Company, Trenton New Jersey

Date added: July 15, 2022 Categories: New Jersey Industrial
North and west elevations, view southeast (2010)

On June 17, 1901, the Consolidated Tobacco Company was incorporated in Trenton, NJ with a capital of $30,000,000. Under the umbrella of this company were several smaller enterprises including the American Cigar Company, the American Tobacco Company, the Continental Tobacco Company, the British-American Tobacco Company and the American Snuff Company. In this arrangement, the Consolidated Tobacco Company owned either a majority or a large portion of the stock of the subsidiary companies, thereby effectively controlling them without being in danger of having a monopoly. In 1904, the company was marginally reorganized and renamed the American Tobacco Company. This series of companies was colloquially known as the "Tobacco Trust" and, at the time of its founding, was responsible for producing 68% of the country's plug and twist tobacco; 60% of the smoking tobacco; 80% of the snuff; 90% of the cigarettes; but only 4.8% of the cigars.

In order to improve this percentage, the American Cigar Company was incorporated on January 12, 1901 in Trenton, NJ with a capital of $10,000,000. Although its founding members were James B. Duke, Henry J. Luce, George J. Smith, William B. Harris, Charles E. Halliweil, Charles C. Dula, Frank H. Ray, George Arente, Jr., Samuel Moorehead and Richard M. Hutchings, 83.5% of it was owned by the American Tobacco Company. The purpose of the company was to cure leaf tobacco and buy, sell and manufacture tobacco, cigarettes, cheroots and cigars. The company was also a conglomeration of several smaller companies including the Havana-American Company, the American Stogie Company, the Federal Cigar Company and Seidenberg and Company. During its first year of operation, the American Cigar Company produced 672 million cigars, or 10.9% of the total for the country. In 1903, its output increased to producing 16.4% of the country's cigars. By 1906, the company had twenty-nine plants, whose aggregate output was approximately five times larger than the output of all other cigar manufacturers combined. At its peak in 1920, the company produced 8.1 billon cigars.

It is therefore evident why it was known as the "largest manufacturer and distributor of cigars in the world...."

The value of the American Cigar Company as a subsidiary of the American Tobacco Company came from both the social and monetary importance of the cigar. Not only was the cigar the "most aristocratic and most expensive form of tobacco", but also, in the United States in the early 20th century, the value of cigars consumed was over 50% greater than that of all the other manufactures of tobacco combined. In 1905, the national factory value of cigar manufacture was $198,196,372 and the factory value of all other manufactured tobacco products was only $132,931,309. Although this would therefore seem like a natural industry to be dominated by a few large concerns, the first two hundred years of cigar manufacture in the United States saw no such thing. The primary reasons for this include the handmade nature of the product and the small scale of manufacture, resulting for it "in general [to be] a small-scale industry and a typical cigar chop was frequently the establishment of a single owner-worker." Larger companies had no advantage because since these processes did not lend themselves to high-volume throughput, administrative coordination did not reduce costs and so raise barriers to entry. Neither massive advertising nor effect organization could bring the dominance of a single firm in the cigar business. Consequently, prior to the founding of the American Cigar Company, there were over 20,000 cigar manufacturers in the United States and 90% of them had fewer than thirty employees.

From the time of its founding, the American Cigar Company understood that in order to gain a permanent foothold in cigar manufacturing, they must out-produce and outlast these smaller enterprises. One of the most effective methods in rendering them obsolete was to develop machinery that negated the advantages held by these smaller companies. Not only was initial cost of such machinery prohibitively expensive for small-scale enterprises, but it also required space and manpower that these businesses did not have. To this end, the "Tobacco Trust" established in the American Machine and Foundry Company in 1901 and its entire purpose was to develop automated methods for tobacco manufacture.

Prior to this push for mechanization, cigars were manufactured almost exclusively by skilled hand workers using simple tools only. These tools included the bunching machine, the suction plate roller and the cigar mold, which were used both in all plants owned by the American Cigar Company and in all smaller concerns as well. By 1917, the American Machine and Foundry Company produced a comprehensive series of cigar rolling machinery that began with loose-leaf tobacco and culminated in a complete cigar. The advantage of such machinery was not only that it increased the speed and cost of production, but also that it could be operated by an unskilled labor force, thereby further reducing costs and expanding their market. Other significant machinery included the cigar-wrapping machine and the cigar-sorting machine, which were both invented in 1926. The result of this intervention in the industry by the American Cigar Company was that, "through mechanization, the cigar manufacturing industry is being transmuted from a small, localized form of enterprise to the status of a modern, mass-production industry." Despite this, the company promoted itself as doing this not for the good of themselves, but for the good of the country, stating that, "The American Cigar Company believe that the possession of the largest equipment, organization, resources, and business ever known in the cigar industry binds them to a public duty to give the public the best cigars possible to make." The American Cigar Company building in Trenton is therefore emblematic of this massive shift from small-scale to large-scale production within the cigar manufacturing industry and representative of the significant efforts of the American Cigar Company to standardize and streamline the industry.

Of all of the American Cigar Company's acquisitions, the most prominent was Seidenberg and Company. Brothers Samuel and Joseph Seidenberg founded Seidenberg and Company in 1866 in Key West, FL. They believed that as Key West had a similar climate to that of Cuba, they could be successful in importing Cuban tobacco and undertaking the manufacturing in the United States. As such, the company was the first to import Cuban tobacco for domestic manufacture. Until its acquisition by the American Cigar Company, it was the largest cigar manufacturer in the United States, with over 2,000 employees. Best known for medium-priced, domestic cigars, the company's most popular brands, all Havana cigars, were Virginia Lee, La Flor de Cuba and La Rosa Espanola, which was the most popular Havana cigar in the United States in the late 19th century. In the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Seidenberg and Company's cigars received highest honors and award for general merit and superior qualities for their various lines of cigars.

The strength of the Seidenberg and Company brand was so significant, and the name of the American Cigar Company so relatively obscure, that the building was frequently referenced as the Seidenberg and Company Factory in period directories and newspaper articles. It was also likely referred to as this since some of the products produced in the Trenton factory were those originally conceived of by Seidenberg and Company.

The land for the American Cigar Company building in Trenton, NJ was purchased in 1901 by the American Cigar Company. The advantages to locating a company in Trenton were that there was a constant supply of inexpensive labor and the proximity of rail and water access provided easy access of both raw materials and final product.

By 1902, the factory was fully operational with 280 employees producing both George (Geo.) W. Childs and Cubanola cigars. From that time until 1915, the American Cigar Company, along with the Enterprise Cigar Company, were the only cigar manufacturers listed in the Trenton City Industrial Directories, although there is no indication as to the number of employees. In 1915, the Prince Cigar Manufacturing was also listed with sixty employees. In contrast, the Enterprise Cigar Company had 200 employees and the American Cigar Company had 1,325 employees. From that time until the early 1930s, five other cigar manufacturers are listed throughout the Trenton City Industrial Directories, but the American Cigar Company had at least four times as many employees. When the Henry Clay and Bock Company was founded in 1932, it had approximately 1,000 employees, according to local newspaper reports, and the American Cigar Company had 840 employees. The other two manufacturers listed in the City Industrial Directories - the G.H.P. Cigar Company and the Emil D. Klein Company - had 252 and 304 employees, respectively. In 1938, the American Cigar Company had 1,183 employees and the Henry Clay and Bock Company had 1,197 employees. The same two other manufacturers only had 220 and 173 employees in that same year. These numbers remained comparable until the closure of the Henry Clay and Bock Company factory in 1967. When the American Cigar Company closed its building in 1969, no other cigar factories remained in Trenton.

Although the Henry Clay and Bock Company factory had a comparable number of employees as that of the American Cigar Company, it cannot truly be considered a rival as it shared the same parent company and manufactured complimentary, not competing brands. The only change in operation at the American Cigar Company building that occurred after the arrival of the Henry Clay and Bock Company was that the employees would often undergo training there before working on the more expensive products made at the Henry Clay and Bock Company. When the Henry Clay and Bock Company closed in 1967, all manufacturing aspects of both factories were relocated to Mountain Top, Pennsylvania. From 1967 until 1969, the American Cigar Company building was exclusively used as warehouse space for the American Cigar Company.

The American Cigar Company building primarily produced six types of cigars: Virginia Lee, La Flor de Cuba, La Rosa Espanola, Antonio Y Cleopatra, George (Geo.) W. Childs and Cubanola. All of these varieties were known as Havana cigars, clear Havana cigars or Key West cigars, that is, cigars made in the United States from Cuban tobacco. From the time of its founding until 1967, the factory produced approximately 20 million cigars yearly, about 3% of the total output of the American Cigar Company.

The American Cigar Company and Its Association with Child Labor

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was little regulation concerning the employment of children in the burgeoning factories and what legislation was in place had little concrete effect. When the American Tobacco Company opened in Trenton, it was legal to employ boys older than twelve and girls older than fourteen. Children between the ages of twelve and fifteen were allowed to work as long as they had attended school for twelve consecutive weeks or two increments of six consecutive weeks in the twelve months prior to their employment. This attendance was to be documented by a teacher and conveyed to their employer. Failure to comply with these regulations resulted in a maximum penalty of a $100 fine.

In 1902, a report by Hugh F. Fox, the president of the New Jersey State Board of Children's Guardians reported that somewhere between 5,968 and 8,042 children under the age of sixteen were employed in New Jersey. This was in part because a number of factories were given favorable reviews without their ever having been visited. However, this problem was not solely the responsibility of the employers. In November 1902, three mothers were arrested for swearing falsely to affidavits as to their children's ages so that they could work at the American Tobacco Company.

From the perspective of the mothers, the benefit of supplemental family income is clear. From the perspective of the employers, the use of children employees was equally fiscally advantageous. In the early 20th century, a child was paid $2.10 for every 1,000 cigars rolled and could generate approximately 6,000 cigars per week with the use of rolling machinery. In contrast, an adult was paid $7.50 for every 1,000 cigars rolled and could generate approximately 1,500 per week by hand. Even if the companies were forced to charge less for a machine-rolled cigar, the children still produced a significant niche product at an expedient rate.

In late 1902, there was a report that the American Tobacco Company employed 280 children with an average age of fourteen. Although this in and of itself was not necessarily illegal, the report continued saying that, "We know for a fact that their children are not allowed to say a word to one another while at work, if they do they will be discharged. ...[Additionally, ] when they came out at night [they] actually fell down from weakness." Unfortunately, this occurrence was not limited to the American Tobacco Company and the state responded by passing a law making the willful employment of children under the age of fourteen years a misdemeanor. The law went into effect in September of 1903 and the punishment ranged from a $200 fine to one-year imprisonment.

In mid-November 1903, the American Tobacco Company had the dubious distinction of being the first company convicted with failure to comply with the new law. Although the company was fined $100 for employing two girls under the age of fourteen, it insisted that they had "exercised all reasonable precaution in excluding from the employ children who had not reached the required age." The company was never alleged to have or be charged with child labor issues again.

Building Function

The interior of the 1902 building and the 1908 building operated collectively as a warehouse and production space. Although it is not known precisely in which portion of the building each function occurred, the general operation is clear. Throughout the building, hundreds of bales of loose tobacco would be stored and there would also be sorting and drying areas, once the bales had been processed. There was office space, humidor areas, rolling and banding tables, and packing and shipping areas. Typical of cigar factories, each floor provided showers for the employees, resulting in the New York Times referring to the building as "one of the most sanitary manufacturing establishments of its kind in the country."

The actual production of the cigar was much like that of other factories. The loose tobacco would arrive at the building in large bales, which would then be broken down and the leaves sorted according to size and quality. The leaves were then wetted, the midrib was removed and the two halves separated. The halves were then dried, formed into loose clusters or bunches, known as the filler. The filler was then distributed to the workers who were seated at long tables, alternating between those who rolled the filler in the binder leaf and those who finalized the cigar by enclosing it in a wrapper leaf. Once the cigar was complete, it was placed in a cellophane wrapper, boxed and stored on site for two weeks in rooms lined with Cuban cedar. After that time, it was sorted by color, banded and properly boxed for shipping.

One of the most unique aspects of the factory was that there was a piano in the main workroom, which was played for two hours each day. There was also a singer, on special occasions, who entertained the workers by singing in their native languages. Typical in Cuban cigar factories, it was thought that the piano would not only provide a pleasant working environment, but that employees would also keep time to it as they work and the livelier the music the faster the work.