J.C. Newman Unveils The World’s Oldest Cigars

J.C. Newman Unveils The World’s Oldest Cigars

Originally published in email newsletter from J.C. Newman on 9.8.23

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Hand rolled in 1857, the cigars were recovered from the S.S. Central America shipwreck.

Tampa, Fla. – Today, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. is unveiling a new exhibit featuring the oldest known cigars in the world at its historic El Reloj cigar factory and museum in Tampa, Florida. The 18 cigars on display were hand rolled in Cuba in 1857. They were found in the wreckage of the S.S. Central America, which sank off the cost of Charleston, S.C. After more than a century at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the cigars were restored by the Ohio State University. J.C. Newman’s new exhibit also includes chewing tobacco and a pipe hand carved from bone that were also recovered from the ship.
“These amazing cigars were rolled before the Civil War and before Tampa became a city,” said fourth-generation owner Drew Newman. “Discovering these cigars is like finding a bottle of wine owned by Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Earlier this year, J.C. Newman purchased these cigars at an auction featuring artifacts from the S.S. Central America.
“The 18 cigars vary in size because they were rolled by hand without cigar molds, which did not became popular until the late 1800s,” said Newman. “Despite spending 134 years under water, the cigars are still smokable today.”
The exhibit was created by J.C. Newman’s Brooklyn- and Tampa-based design partner, Common Bond Design. It is on display in the basement Cigar Vault of J.C. Newman’s 113-year-old iconic El Reloj cigar factory in Tampa’s Ybor City Historic District.
“Prior to the discovery of these cigars, the oldest known cigars in the world were from 1863,” said Newman. “We have checked with the leading cigar publications and collectors, and no one is aware of any cigars older than these.”

About The S.S. Central America
In 1848, the U.S. government opened the first post offices in the newly acquired land of California and contracted with steamships to deliver the mail. One set of mail ships traveled between New York and Panama while another set traveled between Panama and California. Mail crossed the isthmus of Panama in canoes and on the backs of pack animals before a railroad was completed in 1855 and the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

One such mail ship was the S.S. Central America. On September 7, 1857, it stopped in Havana on its way from Panama to New York City. While in port, passenger John Dement of Oregon strolled through Havana and bought cigars for the journey. He then secured them in his steamer trunk in his first-class stateroom.

A few days later, the ship encountered a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina. After a valiant effort to save the ship, the S.S. Central America sank on September 12, 1857. Along with hundreds of passengers and crew, tons of gold, and various personal artifacts, Dement’s trunk and its cigars sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with the ship. 

Recovering the World’s Oldest Cigars
The Columbus-America Discovery Group located the S.S. Central America in 1988 in the Atlantic Ocean 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, at a depth of 7,200 feet.
Using a remote operated vehicle called Nemo, researchers recovered Dement’s trunk from the shipwreck’s portside debris field in 1991. They kept the trunk submerged in the same water tank in which it was recovered and transported it to the Ohio State University for further study.

“When we opened the Dement trunk and first observed the undisturbed contents, one of the first things we noticed was quite a number of cylindrical dark-gray organic artifacts lying somewhat randomly on top of the blackened mass beneath,” said Chief Scientist Bob Evans. “We quickly surmised that they were cigars, and this made perfect sense. Havana was the ship’s last port of call. John Dement purchased cigars there and tossed them into his trunk on top of his clothes.”

Scientists at Ohio State carefully rinsed the artifacts in Dement’s trunk, including the cigars, in distilled water. They spread them onto fiberglass screening and put them into a deep freeze around 20 degrees below Fahrenheit for several months. This process allowed the cigars to slowly freeze dry under atmospheric pressure, avoiding vacuum or chemical treatments.
“This technique required patience, but it prevented microscopic fiber collapse, and it was very non-invasive and non-altering,” explained Evans. “It took several months, but eventually the cigars emerged from the deep-freeze in essentially the same condition as they are in today.”

About J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

Founded in 1895 by Julius Caeser Newman, J.C. Newman Cigar Company is the oldest family-owned premium cigar maker in America.  J.C. Newman rolls its El Reloj, Factory Throwouts, and Trader Jacks cigars by hand-operated, vintage cigar machines at its historic cigar factory in Tampa, Florida.  It also hand rolls its Brick House, Perla del Mar, El Baton, and Quorum cigars at the J.C. Newman PENSA cigar factory in Esteli, Nicaragua.  J.C. Newman’s Diamond Crown, MAXIMUS, Julius Caeser, and Black Diamond cigars are handmade by Tabacalera A. Fuente in the Dominican Republic.  With its longtime partners the Fuente family, the Newmans founded the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation, which supports low-income families in the Dominican Republic with education, health care, vocational training, and clean water.

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