New Orleans: Tobacco Mecca

Cigars still find a home in the former tobacco mecca, New Orleans.

Perique-blend cigars and other tobacco delight at Mushroom New Orleans

Tobacco has been heralded as a gift from the gods. Whether or not you’d go that far, it’s hard to disagree that tobacco has shaped your life in one way or another.

Particularly if you live in New Orleans. From 1880 to 1930, New Orleans was the cigar capital of the United States. Although tobacco was not one of southern Louisiana’s major cash crops during the plantation era, the region did play a big role in the import, export, and manufacture of cigars. St. James Parish even created a whole new form of tobacco known as perique. Here’s more about the city’s smokin’ history.

A Brief History of Smoking in the U.S.

People in the Americas have been smoking tobacco since at least 5000 BC. But it didn’t become popular with Europeans until colonists landed here in the 1500s. Its value was not recognized instantly. In fact, when in 1492 Columbus received a gift of tobacco from natives of Grand Turk Island, the absentminded explorer promptly threw it away. (Well, he also thought he was in India.)

“The natives brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance,” Columbus wrote in his journal. He and his fellow travelers figured out the whole smoking thing soon enough, though, and Europe went crazy for the dried leaves. In 1611, English settler John Rolfe (soon to be husband of Pocahontas) became the first settler to cultivate tobacco in the new land.

American Colonists Cash in on Tobacco

Pretty soon, France was eager to grow tobacco as a cash crop in New Orleans. But the region’s humid, subtropical climate was too wet for the job. Instead, sugarcane and cotton became Louisiana’s main plantation crops, with only a few tobacco farms scattered here and there. But in the 1800s, a world-famous blend of pressure-fermented tobacco known as perique would be created in St. James Parish, Louisiana, after a Cajun farmer observed how the Choctaw and Chickasaw cultivated tobacco.

Although New Orleans was too swampy to cultivate the tobacco plant on a large scale, its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River and its destination as a major port city did help make it a major hub for trade in cotton, sugar, molasses—and tobacco. The five-story La Belle Creole Cigar & Tobacco Factory employed more than a thousand people, who rolled 42 million cigars in 1892 alone.

Tobacco in the 21st Century

In the late 20th century, tobacco use declined and perique production almost stopped altogether. But there are still vibrant signs of the city’s heyday as a cigar mecca, and perique has enjoyed a resurgence, its cultivation and production viewed by many as an artisanal craft worth preserving. Today there is at least half a dozen cigar bars throughout the greater New Orleans area.

At Mushroom New Orleans, you can find perique-blend American Spirit cigarettes as well as premium cigars, cigar wraps, cigarette papers, shisha, cloves and more. If you’d like to sample them, please feel free to drop by. We’re proud to be part of New Orleans’s long tobacco tradition, and we’d love to talk history with you.