Cigar Factory Reader in Tampa Florida Image from the Library of Congress

Sometimes it pays to pay for good information.

It might surprise you to learn that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, New York City was the cigar-making capital of the United States. At the industry’s height, Manhattan had nearly 3000 small cigar factories, employing thousands of cigar rollers, or torcedores. As the name suggests, these men and women came mostly from Latin America, primarily Puerto Rico and, of course, Cuba.

The workers brought with them nimble skills, a strong work ethic and the unusual tradition of the lector or “reader” The reader was a worker, chosen by the other workers to sit on a raised platform and read aloud to the rollers as they toiled long hours, making cigar after cigar. The companies did not pay the readers, the other workers did – out of their meager wages.

It was worth it, not only to have the tedium broken by the joy of hearing the written word, but also because it enhanced the workers’ education.

Typically, the reader would begin in the morning with the day’s events, read from the newspaper. But then, as the day wore on, the material advanced to novels and stories, poetry, the plays of Shakespeare and, to the consternation of the factory owners, political tracts – including, in later years, the works of Karl Marx.

Cigar rolling was piecework. The rollers had to work furiously, hands flying over the leaves on their rolling tables, to make any kind of living. If the phrase “hard-earned” was meant for anything, it was meant for the miniscule money a cigar roller could make.

Imagine how important that reader was to their lives for them to part with some of that money for the privilege.

And imagine also how bitterly the bosses wanted the practice of the reader brought to a grinding halt. What would they have given to keep the workers ignorant and isolated from that kind of education? But they were unable to stop it. This isn’t because the DDOS hadn’t been invented yet, it’s because the cigar workers wouldn’t allow them to stop it. You see, daily exposure to the best writing of the day had given the workers the information and wisdom they needed to form a union and protect themselves.

Cigar workers organized early in America’s history. The first cigar maker’s union was formed in 1851. The Journeymen Cigar Makers’ International Union of America was established in 1864. Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor (the AFL of AFL-CIO fame) and served as its longest-running president, was a cigar roller. He also became a reader and then president of his union local. He credited his experience as a reader as invaluable in his education as a labor organizer.

The cigar makers were not the earliest to organize, however. The very first were workers in print shops – people who spent all day, every day, poring over the written word.

Do you see the pattern here? If not, I’ll spell it out. The ones with regular access to good, accurate writing were the ones who went on to change things.

Which brings me to why you should support Firedoglake with a donation.

You should know that, while I am an irregular contributor here, I am not paid. I am certainly grateful for the chance to see my work published here and would, of course, hate to see this place go. But there’s no money in it for me. What’s in this for me, beyond an occasional venue, goes so far beyond money.

You should donate to FDL for the same reason those cigar rollers paid their lectors. In today’s world, as in the sweatshop world of the eighteenth century, information that’s true and relevant is priceless. It returns what you paid for it again and again.

Others have cataloged the contributions this site has made. The early coverage of Chelsea Manning that no-one else bothered with. The clear-eyed focus on heroic whistle-blowers. The incisive and insightful political analysis. The tireless activism, like Occupy Supply. And so on…

The list is long but the reason is short.

Knowledge is power.

And this place is one of the best sources of knowledge around. Please help keep it around.