1916 : Detroit Cigar Factory Women Strike

June 29, 2024 all-day

Cigars … Luxurious, expensive, elitist….

But about a century ago working-class Americans enjoyed cigars every day, and Detroit was famous for manufacturing the best smokes in the nation.

The industry took for a number of reasons.  First before the Civil War even started, the local population had swelled due to the arrival of Germanic and Jewish immigrants who brought with them the skills and techniques of cigarmaking from their European homelands.   Second, the raw material – tobacco leaf –was readily available across the Detroit River in Southwestern Ontario. The Canadians produced a high-quality tobacco crop in sandy and silt-loam soil. With tobacco so close at hand, demand for Detroit’s quality wrapped cigars turned a cottage industry into an early form of mass production employing thousands of workers throughout the Detroit area. And finally, luck.  When the Civil War broke out, soldiers sought tobacco as a remembrance of the comfort of home.   Soldiers exchanged tobacco products among themselves, spreading the use and the reputation of certain brands.

Given the prominent role 90,000 Michigan soldiers played in all theatres of the war, it is not surprising that Detroit’s home-made cigars, called ‘seegars’ (a cheaper version of the more traditional product), and especially chewing tobacco soon gained a national reputation.

George Miller actually opened the first cigar factory in Detroit on Woodward  in 1841. With the passage of time thousands of Detroit men, and later women, would make their living stemming, stripping and bunching tobacco, and rolling Seed and Havanas, five-cent cigars and stogies. The cigar industry became one of the most important in the city.

In order to grow, the cigar business needed cheap labor.  In Detroit, as in the rest of the country, male and often unionized cigar workers were gradually replaced with immigrant women workers, who were perceived as inexpensive, reliable, and docile, hence unlikely to cause trouble. After all, they did not have unions to support them.

The labor-intensive, semiskilled process of hand-rolling cigars provided a somewhat above-average wage for many of Detroit’s women, who were able to earn from twenty-five to forty dollars per week. Although these women, not organized into unions, earned much less than union men, the wage was still significantly greater than many would have been able to attain elsewhere. Despite the relatively high wages, controversy arose over the working conditions and degree of compensation faced by female cigar makers. After several attempts to establish an apprenticeship system failed due to lack of cooperation among the city’s cigar companies, new employees were trained on the job. In order to encourage employees to remain with the company that trained them, wages for new employees were withheld for a period of time, commonly six months. If an employee left the company before this training period had expired, all income earned during that time was forfeited.

1895 advertisement for Detroit’s Globe Tobacco’s Gold Flak Cut Plug Chewing Tobacco  showing a lady sitting with a dog wearing glasses and smoking a pipe.

globe poster

To attract female workers some cigar companies occasionally equipped their factories with showers, spacious lunchrooms, and even hired piano players to entertain them during the ten-hour workdays.  However, these modern facilities were an exception to the rule. Throughout the Detroit cigar boom the vast majority of the women continued to work in hot, humid, smelly, even nauseating facilities, and often earned only half the wage of the male workers.

Detroit Cigar Factor around 1913. Note cigars under the table.

Cigar Factory

No wonder that in 1916 the “docile” Polish immigrant women organized a major strike and proved the factory owners wrong. Poor working conditions, the practice of withholding pay during the first few months of employment, along with sexual harassment led the Polish women of Lilies Cigar Company to strike on June 29, 1916. The strike spread and in a few days shut down all the major cigar factories.

The pressure for strikes had been building for a number of years.  In 1912, the Cigar Makers’ International Union called for a boycott of Detroit-made cigars, and in September 1913 the Detroit News-Tribune supported the union with an article critical of child labor practices in the cigar factories. In January 1915, Tobacco Leaf, an industry journal, joined the debate with a piece highlighting the high wages earned by the city’s cigar makers, and held up the San Telmo Company as a model of corporate responsibility, describing a pleasant work environment and calling attention to that company’s financial support of the construction of new housing in the nearby neighborhoods. In 1915, the Michigan Legislature considered a minimum-wage law that would apply to women in the tobacco industry, but the cigar makers successfully lobbied against it, threatening to leave the state if it passed. In that same year, the San Telmo Company extended the aforementioned unpaid training period to a full twelve months. On June 26, 1916, tensions increased as the unionized, male cigar makers negotiated a major pay increase. Three days later, women at the Lilies Cigar Company, located at 222 East Forest Avenue, went on strike demanding a similar pay increase. Over the next several days, all the city’s major producers, including San Telmo, were on strike.

An advertistment for Newsboy Cigars manufactured by Brown Brothers in Detroit.

By 1917, the workers were able to achieve some of their demands, but only after several of the major cigar companies established operations in nearby states and in Ontario. In 1918, Oscar Rosenberger sold his enterprise to Haas Brothers Tobacco Company as the importance of the Detroit industry began to slowly decline.

After the First World War cigars gradually started losing popularity to cigarettes.  During the Great Depression women’s wages plummeted even  further and women walked out of the cigar factories many times  in an attempt to improve their lot.

The center of the tobacco industry remained in the North until the 1920s. When Prohibition went into effect with the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, the major marketplace for cigars–saloons and hotel bars–were closed and the social patterns of America were shaken.

Other factors led to the decline of Detroit’s cigar industry.

The invention and spread of the automatic cigarette rolling machine in 1881 reduced demand for cigars and other tobacco products. James Albert Bonsack’s machine was patented and installed throughout many Southern states causing a shift in the tobacco industry away from the North. Inexpensive mass-produced cigarettes were all the rage in the fast approaching twentieth century. Detroit’s ambition shifted too–towards the automobile business which would revolutionize the new century.

Inspired by the Flint Automotive Strike of 1936-37 which resulted recognition of their union and many concessions, the women cigar workers also turned to the “sit-in” as a bargaining tool.


Cigar workers sit down at the Mozier Cressman Cigar Company in 1937.

The most famous of the tobacco sit-down strikes took place at the Bernard Schwartz Company, founded in 1895 by its namesake, a Jewish immigrant. Employing 400 in the manufacture of R.J. Dun Cigars, the company was one of Detroit’s well-known family-owned enterprises. When its workers sat down on their jobs in the spring of 1937, the Schwartz family turned to Detroit’s municipal leaders for assistance in removing the sit-downers from the shop.  The Detroit Police Deparment responded with heavily-armed officers whose brutal tactics in clearing the Schwartz factory was captured in newspaper photographs of the day and led to a labor-organized public protest in late March 1937 in Cadillac Square, the city’s largest outdoor gathering spot and a traditional area for public protests for generations of Detroiters.

Detroit’s tobacco industry continued to die out during the middle of the 20th century. By 1956 only three cigar manufacturers were still listed in Detroit’s business directories, and by 1964 there was only one.

Competition from enterprises elsewhere in the country, especially Ybor City, Florida, where Cuban immigrants made that city a center of American production of Cuban cigars, helped to close out Detroit’s years as the nation’s leading tobacco producer.

Sources :

Cigar Strikes : Polish Women Strikes of 1916, Ethnic Layers of Detroit, Wayne State University, August 8, 2016.

Thomas L. Jones, “Up in smoke: Cigar making in Detroit”, Detroit News, February 17, 2000.

San Telmo Cigar Manufacturing Company Plant No. 2“, HistoricDetroit.org,

Gregory Fournier, “Detroit Tobacco Industry Once Known as the Tampa of the North“,  Gregory A. Fournier’s Blog via GoodReads, December 26, 2016.

Related Stories:

A few wealthy Detroit Cigar Manufacturers:

In 1841 George Miller opened the first cigar factory, a small operation,  on Woodward, south of Jefferson.

M. I. Mills, the founder and president of the Banner Tobacco Company, also founded the Detroit and Michigan Stove Company (another leading Detroit enterprise 100 years ago) and became director of the First National Bank, the city’s largest financial institution. He also had time in his busy commercial life to serve as mayor of Detroit in the late 1860s.  (Also see Merrill I. Mills wikipedia entry)

Hiram Walker, one of the founders of the Globe Tobacco Company, gained his fame primarily for distilling whiskey at his Canadian facility, a product currently  known world-wide as ‘Canadian Club.’

Daniel Scotten (born on December 11, 1819 in Scotland) was founder of Hiawatha Tobacco Company and later helped organize the Continental Tobacco Company, a holding company whose shares were mostly owned by American Tobacco.   Scotten started in the tobacco business in 1852 as a 33-year-old apprentice to Detroit tobacconist Isaac Miller. Sleeping at the shop and saving his money, Scotten eventually was able to finance his own enterprise which he opened the Scotten-Dillon Cigar Company to his eventual good fortune just before the Civil War.  /  By the 1890s the company had 1.200 employees, a weekly payroll of $8,000, and $4 million in annual sales. Daniel Scotten was involved in a variety of outside interests even into his late 70s. Possessing a peculiar horror of railways and railroad travel, he insisted on carrying on his farflung business affairs by means of his horse-drawn private coach, pulled by matched white horses no less. / “Uncle Daniel” also  kept a huge wood pile in his yard for the needy to help themselves, literally read the dictionary for fun, and sent to his friend holiday gifts of turkeys he had raised himself. When he retired, he received a princely sum of #$2.5 million for his holdings.   / Scotten invested in Detroit commercial real estate to such an extent that at the time of his death in 1899 he owned nearly 2,500 city plots, the Hotel Cadillac, and business blocks along Gratiot and Randolph Streets.  When he died in 1891, he left to his heirs (a wife and daughter) a $7 million estate and to the Detroit Public Library his 20,000-volume private library of rare volumes. / Amy Elliott Bragg, “The Ghost of Daniel Scotten“, NightTrain.com, October 20, 2010.

John Judson Bagley was another Detroiter who made a fortune as the man behind the Mayflower Tobacco Company. A  native of New York State, he came to Detroit in 1846 to work as an apprentice to Isaac Miller. Seven years later, Bagley bought out Miller and renamed the company the Mayflower Tobacco Company. As was the case with Scotten, Bagley’s enterprise boomed during the Civil War and its owner’s personal fortune and community status grew accordingly. In the 1860s, Bagley helped to organize the Michigan Mutual Life Insurance Company and served as its president for five years. Like many Michiganians at that time, Bagley was a staunch Republican, helping to found the party in the 1850s and chairing the Republican State Central Committee for a number of years. He was involved in Detroit politics as a member of the city’s Board of Aldermen, and in 1872 was nominated by his party for the governership of Michigan. / As a Beardo Governo r(1873-1877) , he encouraged the establishment of a state commission to regulate railroads, dealt with the always difficult matter of juvenile delinquincy, and led the effort to establish the state Board of Health and the state Fish Commission. / Bagley was an enthusiastic supporter of prohibition, and used his gubernatorial powers to persuade his fellow citizens of what he perceived as the evils of drink. Retiring to business and private life after his years in public office, Bagley had little time to enjoy the fruits of his commercial success, dying at the age of 49 in 1881. His widow, Frances Newberry, the daughter of a pioneering Michigan missionary and one of the founders of the University of Michigan, survived her husband by 50 years and became a leader among business women in Michigan, helping to establish the Young Women’s Club of Detroit that offered financial assistance to women starting business careers. / John Bagley’s name was immortalized by the naming of Bagley Street in his honor. Additionally, at the news of his death the Detroit News led an effort that raised $1,900 from its readers for the production of a statue of Bagley that stood on Campus Martius (near the present-day Kern Block) until the 1920s when it was given to The Detroit Institute of Arts to make room for commercial development on the site. Bagley also provided in his will for the erection of a public drinking fountain. Designed by the famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson (whose style of public architecture is seen most notably throughout Chicago’s business districts), the fountain still stands in downtown Detroit, an odd tribute to a man whose company produced a product that necessitated spitting! (Also see John J. Bagley wikipedia entry)

Oscar Rosenberger organized the San Telmo Cigar Manufacturing Company  in 1892. Rosenberger was an immigrant and philanthropist, becoming involved with United Jewish Charities after the eventual success of his cigar business. He supported the Fresh Air Society, an organization that provides outdoor opportunities to low-income immigrant and Jewish-American youth, in its 1912 purchase of a permanent camp on Lake St. Clair about four miles south of Mt. Clemens. The Fresh Air Society continues to exist, and in subsequent years moved their operations first to Brighton and finally Ortonville.

Thomas L. Jones, ” Up in smoke: Cigar making in Detroit“, Detroit News, February 17, 2000.