New York City’s little cigarette rollers

In turn-of-the-century New York City, even young kids did their share to help the family finances. If a poor immigrant family worked a trade at home, small hands were there to assist. 


Above, photographer Lewis Wicks Hine captures an immigrant widow and her son rolling cigarettes in 1909. I love his brother in the dirty garment, his ears rather Spock-like, staring with suspicion at the camera.

The picture comes from Historic Photos of New York State, a just-published collection with lots of wonderful shots of city life over the years.


Jacob Riis also photographed an immigrant family from Eastern Europe plying their trade, cigar rolling. The undated photo above is part of the Jacob A. Riis Collection at the Museum of the City of New York.

I imagine these families were replaced by machines not long after the photos were taken.

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10 Responses to “New York City’s little cigarette rollers”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    There used to be cigar rollers in a little store on Broadway and 17th Street. Used to pass by and see them at work. Wonder where they vanished like smoke or if they’re still there, busily rolling another Producto…

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I think there’s more prestige in cigar rolling. Cigarette rolling not so much.

  3. Marshall Says:

    I think cigars have to be rolled by people. At least, no machine thus far invented is sufficiently careful with the tobacco (as opposed to paper in the case of cigarettes) wrapping as well as cheap enough to be economic. There are cigar rollers at work in the cigar shop round about 37th St. and 9th Ave.

  4. Bowery Boogie Says:

    I love the calendar hanging on the wall.

  5. Nabe News: September 17 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] of immigrant cigarette rollers in 1909.  Child labor.  Note the calendar in the background [Ephemeral […]

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    I know! I love that it includes info on the phases of the moon for that month. Thanks for the link BB.

  7. dirnewyorkcity Says:

    That’s a hundred years ago. Their descendants probably own a cigarette manufacturing company these days. 🙂

  8. Sean Says:

    There used to be a newer cigar roller on church st in tribeca a couple of years ago. Not sure if he is still there.

    Yes, indeed they were Eastern European workers. Apparently, according to Riis, many were Bohemians.

  9. PizzaBagel Says:

    Top photo: The child “in the dirty garment, his ears rather Spock-like, staring with suspicion at the camera” reminds me of the comic-strip character from that era, the Yellow Kid — but with hair.

    Checking through census pages from the late 1800s, I have often seen individuals whose occupation was listed as “segar maker.” Any idea when or why “segar” became “cigar?”

  10. Sean Says:

    In cowboy movies, they pronounced ‘cigar” as ‘cee-gar, or ‘see-gar’). I guess it was the Southern or Spanish or old-fashioned way of pronouncing it. “Ceegar” is the way a Spanish person would say it, and Cubans make cigars.
    When cigarettes became popular, maybe that pronunciation (cig – ar) replaced the older ‘cee-gar’.

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