Las Cigarreras (Cigar-making women)

Have you ever heard of "cigarreras"? These women manufactured cigars and cigarretes during the 19th century,  and paved the way for the rest of Spanish women.  We must thank them for their work, because after them, many women were able to work and find their place in a labor market dominated by men.

If you know Seville, you will know that in San Fernando Street there is a very special building. This building, originally, was the first tobacco factory established in Europe, being the most important industrial building of the continent in the 18th century.

Until the 19th century, only men worked in the factory, a workforce of approximately 1,900 people. But several factors led to the entry of women into the factory. The first one is that cigar sales skyrocketed. This product, which had come years earlier from the Americas, became increasingly popular. Both the Seville factory and the others that opened in Spain needed more productive, low-wage labor.

To this, we must add that Spain was immersed in a war: the Peninsular War against the Napoleonic troops who wanted to invade the country. Many men fought in this conflict, so the need arose for women, who did not go to war, to join the labor market.

Finally, women were found to be faster and more productive. Up to that time, the work done by men at the Seville factory was considered to be of poor quality. On the other hand, cigars imported from Cuba or those made by women at the Cadiz factory were much better. In general, it was an advantage for the employers and contractors. Many of these women did this work to supplement their husbands' salaries and were paid less than men (that wage gap we know so well). However, working was a huge advantage for them. For the first time, they began to earn money independently, giving them a certain financial independence from the male figure. They no longer needed to marry to support themselves, and many could decide to remain single.

This small economic independence was also the predecessor of a much greater autonomy. Previously, women did not have much freedom to go out and have a life outside their homes. We also find that, step by step, they begin to enter into political affairs. It was considered that women should not have a say in important issues, nor did they have freedom of thought. As they entered the world of work, they fought to speak out, they fought for their rights, they went on strikes and asked to be heard.

However, it was not a bed of roses. When the idea of starting to hire women in the Seville factory was raised in Madrid, many men opposed it. One of them, the superintendent José Espinosa, replied with the following statement, magnificently reflecting the thinking of his time:

“The daily wage of the man is greater than that of the woman because the latter only has to attend ordinarily to her own maintenance and even many of them to only their clothing because they are supported by their fathers, brothers and relatives and men have to support themselves, their wives, their children and even their mothers, mothers-in-law or sisters; […] women, who know that they are fired when they marry and only aspire to remain single, perhaps with an immoral and relaxed life. " (Seville October 10, 1807, Correspondence from J. Espinosa to M. Cayetano Soler).

He himself mentions in the same letter the following:

"Nor can it be lost sight of that to leave in abandonment about 800 families of as many cigar makers who are employed in these factories would be a ruin to the city, and that to do the work they execute would require more than 1,200 women.”

Later, women demonstrated not only their ability to provide for their families, but also that they were much more productive than men. For all these reasons, women entered the tobacco labor market on a massive scale. Their work quickly became highly valued and in demand, leading to more women being hired. By 1880, there were already 6,000 women working in the factory. What a big change!

Starting in 1828, they began to fight to improve their terrible working conditions and increase their derisory wages, organizing legendary revolts and riots. They created the first Brotherhoods of Mutual Relief and obtained the first nurseries, schools and lactation rooms inside their factories. Cigar makers inaugurated the women's labor movement. They were feared for their strong presence in the strikes they led or supported. It is also said that there was no greater example of sisterhood and joint struggle than the one these women set for each other.

Their role has gone down in history through numerous works. And we already know which is the first one that comes to your mind: the opera "Carmen". In this work, a Sevillian cigar maker falls in love with Don José. This last character tells us in the opera a little bit about how the work in the factory was:

“Well, they are four or five hundred who roll cigars in a big room. Men cannot enter this room without permission, because, when it's hot, these workers put themselves at ease, especially young people.”

This fragment is very representative, because cigar makers became world famous. It was surprising to many men that a factory would hire so many women to do such a job. Thus, the factory began to receive many visits from people who, amazed, wanted to observe the scene with their own eyes. It was such an exotic scene that the Royal Factory practically became a tourist attraction. That is why the factory and the cigar makers appear in many other literary works, such as A Handbook for Travellers in Spain and Readers at Home by Richard Ford, La Spagna by Edmondo De Amicis or La demme et le pantin by Pierre Louys.

However, the best-known artistic representation in Seville is the painting of Las Cigarreras by Gonzalo Bilbao, made in 1915.

In Sevilla4Real, we are very proud of these cigar makers. What do you think about them? Did you know these facts?

If you want to know more about these women and many others, we have the perfect tour for you: "Illustrious Andalusian Women", a historical tour in which we mention women who have transgressed their roles and have stood out for making a place for themselves in this world. Do not hesitate to contact us at for more information.


Info from Conoce mi ciudad and Universidad de Sevilla.

Photos from Conoce mi ciudad, Wikipedia, Wikipedia and Diario de Triana.