Why They Did the Things They Did

One facet of my study of family history involves finding answers to why my ancestors did the things they did. For example, some of the questions I seek to answer are:

  • ‘How and why did my Southern ancestors maintain and defend the system of slavery?’
  • ‘What made my DeBacker family pull up roots in Belgium and go to Kansas in the 1880s?’
  • ‘Why did my Spiegel ancestors leave New York City to live in Savannah, Georgia after the Civil War, and why after living in Savannah for only a few years did they leave there for Dallas, Texas?’

I believe that I have determined why the family of George C Spiegel – a great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side – left New York City for the American South following the Civil War. As in many cases of family migration, it appears that George left NYC because of his profession.

Except for the year that he served in the Union Army, George C Spiegel was employed for nearly 60 years as a cigar maker. He probably began as an apprentice when he was a teenager in the 1850s. In those days, his family and the family of my great great grandmother, Sophia Precht lived in the Manhattan neighborhood of Little Germany which is now known as Alphabet City.

According to the Wikipedia article on the Cigar Maker’s International Union (CMIU), cigar makers were typically independent proprietors before the Civil War. Before the 1890s, all cigars were made by hand. In the early days, the cigar maker worked for himself, buying tobacco in small quantities as he needed it, using only his hands and a cutting blade to fabricate finished cigars in the place in which he lived.

In New York City, it was typical for cigar manufacturers to furnish the raw material to the cigar makers they employed who would pay a deposit for nearly double the value of the tobacco supplied. The cigar makers would then carry their stock home and make the cigars in their rooms, bringing back completed cigars to the manufacturer for payment.

During the Civil War, the federal government instituted an internal revenue tax on cigars and established a permits system for employers and employees. The “job system” that previously existed prior was eliminated, and the employer (i.e., manufacturer) was now forced to have some physical facility (i.e., factory). The previous system was replaced by a “tenement house system” whereby the manufacturers would buy or rent a block of tenements and then sublet the apartments to cigar makers and their families — thereby technically fulfilling the government requirement of maintaining a physical facility.

The traditional craft skill was thus devalued, and the cigar makers demoralized. As a result, many previously self-employed cigar makers were consequently driven out of business. This accelerated the trend towards unionization of the industry. One of the first significant issues the CMIU attempted to tackle was their members’ terrible living conditions in these New York City tenement buildings. The union’s efforts forced the New York Board of Health to take notice of the situation; however, the result was nothing more than a report that whitewashed the system. Also, after the Civil War, there was a wave of immigrants from Bohemia. Some of whom replaced the traditionally skilled craftsmen with unskilled laborers who were now using a wooden mold to facilitate the assembly of the product.

George C. Spiegel (Savannah, Georgia) c. 1870

We know that by 1869, George and his wife Sophia relocated to Savannah, Georgia, where their first child, a son named George, was born. The city of Savannah was largely untouched by the Civil War, having surrendered peaceably to Sherman’s Army in the fall of 1864. The family spent only a few years in Savannah, and sometime in late 1871 or early 1872, the Spiegels moved to Dallas, Texas. In Georgia, the economy was struggling from the destruction caused by the war. While out west, the little town of Dallas, Texas, was on the verge of becoming a boomtown when two major railroads intersected there in 1873. With the arrival of the trains, the population of Dallas went from 3000 in early 1872 to more than 7000 in September of the same year.

My great-grandmother, Helen “Nellie” Spiegel, was born in Dallas in 1872, and my grandfather, J. M. Dobbs, Jr. was born there in 1902.

George continued his profession as a cigar maker in Dallas. At one point, he owned a cigar factory in that city; however, according to city directories, he spent most of his time employed by other manufacturers. In the 1920s, there was a steep decline in the sales of traditionally hand-crafted cigars. This was primarily due the increased popularity of mass-produced cigarettes during World War I.

As I mentioned in a previous article, I discovered correspondence from George C Spiegel appearing in the pages of the Cigar Maker’s Journal, the official organ of the Cigar Makers International Union.

George died at the age of 85 in 1925.

{For a fun look at how cigars are made by hand see Conan Visits a Cuban Cigar Factory}

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