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HOMEFRONT: Davenport cigar book culminates lifetime of collecting
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HOMEFRONT: Davenport cigar book culminates lifetime of collecting

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We remember when the Quad-Cities was the farm implement capitol of the world, and have read about Davenport being famous for washing machines and Muscatine synonymous with pearl buttons.

Lesser known is that cigar-making was once a major industry in Davenport. 

From 1861 through 1960, Davenport saw about 240 cigar manufacturers come and go, some small and lasting only a year or two, some large, lasting more than 50 years.

The heyday was from 1900 through the mid-1920s. In 1902, for example, the city had 60 cigar factories. The very biggest employed about 350 people.

All this information comes from a new book titled "A History of Cigars — Davenport, Iowa" by Merle Vastine, of Davenport, and Tom Quinn, of Ottumwa, Iowa, both cigar memorabilia collectors and devoted students of local history.

Vastine began collecting cigar boxes and related items about 50 years ago and, while doing, ferreted out a vast amount of information that he has now committed to the pages of his book.

The bulk of the work is text about the companies — listings of names, owner names, dates and location of operation, names of brands and other information — but pictures and graphics make it eminently readable.

This accessibility starts with the color photos of Vastine's 200-some cigar boxes that are, in themselves, works of art.

The box for the Elk cigar, for example, features an illustration of an elk. The famous Brown Beauties box portrays two exotically dressed women, one bare-breasted. The box for Miss Pearl has the Mississippi River flowing in the background. The Mallard pictures a duck flying above a marsh with cattails;  Annie Laurie, a beautiful woman; Rich and Rare, a fishing scene, and the Pappoose, a baby wrapped in colorful fabric, tucked inside a canoe.

Other color photos are of Vastine's collection of ash trays, metal cigar cutters (for cutting the ends off), lighters, advertising mirrors and calendars, letterhead company stationery and colorful cigar bands.

Then there are black-and-white reproductions of newspaper articles about the companies, photos of the owners, obituaries of the owners, want-ads for employees and advertisements for the cigars themselves.

One of the more interesting ads, from 1921, carries the headline "A Nail in a Cigar."

"Hereafter a nail will be placed in one cigar and packed with every 500 leaving the factory," according to Senn & Behm, 821 W. 15th St. "The smoker finding a nail as the cigar is being smoked will receive a box of 25 of these good cigars free by bringing or mailing the nail to the factory."

Also included are several rare photos taken inside a factory showing workers doing their jobs.

Cigar making, Vastine explains, got its start in Davenport in 1852 with German immigrants who fled to America after the failed revolution of 1848, bringing their cigar-making skills with them.

In small operations, one or two people did everything necessary to make a cigar, acquiring the tobacco leaves in large bales from Wisconsin, southern Illinois, Kentucky and eastern states.

But the bigger companies had a diversified workforce. It began with the strippers, a person, often a woman, who would strip, or remove, the center stem from the big tobacco leaves and tear the leaf into smaller pieces.  Bunch makers would put pieces of leaves together in a bunch, then rollers would wrap the bunches with a premium leaf to make a cigar. The cigar was then put into a press, or mold, overnight to form the desired shape.

Then a packer would sort the cigars by color, size and shape and put them into wooden cigar boxes that usually held 50 cigars. Other jobs were  weighers, bookkeepers, shipping clerks and salesmen.

In 1925, the Peter N. Jacobsen Cigar Co., one of the bigger establishments, made 250,000 cigars per week, employing about 250 workers, Vastine says.

It is amazing to me that there were 60 cigar manufacturers in the city at one time. Consider that for a minute.

I think we have become so used to giant companies dominating the manufacture of nearly every item we use that we forget there was a time when there were lots of small businesses making similar products.

But then cigar companies disappeared, done in by cigarettes, which became more popular.

By 1935, Davenport had only eight cigar factories. By 1945 that number had dropped to two and in 1961, the last one closed its doors.

Two of the bigger manufacturers were the Ferd. Haak company, located in what is now Tri-City Equipment, a big redstone building at 527 W. 4th St., and the Peter N. Jacobsen Cigar Co., located in a building at the southwest corner of 4th and Harrison streets. 

The book Vastine and Quinn compiled is a great contribution to Davenport history, the everyday history of how people lived and worked and moved through life.

Vastine is selling a spiral-bound edition for $20 that will be available at a later date at the German American Heritage Center, Davenport.


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