Putting sound in the workplace is a two-edged sword; it inspires efficiency, but also, at times, insurrection. Cuban cigar factories have a centuries-old tradition of employing readers, who sit at the front of the factory room announcing their way through a stack of printed matter, to entertain the labor force.

Cigar Factory Reader

The practice continues today. A BBC piece from last week describes how the readings, the content of which includes the newspaper, self-help books, modern novels, and classics, “help[s] workers pass away the day.” The repetition of the job makes it easy to concentrate on other information and, in turn, alleviates boredom with the original task. (Which, as you might imagine, can be immense.)

The factory owner is arguably the main beneficiary of the reader’s work, since he’ll end up with more cigars to sell. For their part, the workers are – for both better and worse – mentally shielded from their shitty jobs.

But the segment also suggests an educational benefit. Cigar factory employees often have little or no contact with literature elsewhere in their lives, so the readings offer them access to useful information about the world. What the report doesn’t mention is that reading to laborers was an idea originally organized in prisons. The modern tradition of factory reading stems directly from that history. From the Cuban Heritage Collection:

In 1861 activist and intellectual Nicolás Azcárate proposed reading to prisoners in jail as part of their rehabilitation. His idea was implemented and, since many prisoners rolled cigars to earn wages, a direct link to the cigar industry was established. The wages, received by prisoners at the end of their terms, were managed in the meantime by the prison administrators and used in part to replenish the book fund.

This is liberalism in a classic sense. But education had effects beyond rehabilitation:

Factory readings became popular, attracting passersby who stopped to listen outside. Several newspapers dedicated articles to the subject and published reading lists. But the custom also had detractors who claimed it encouraged revolutionary ideas. They were not entirely wrong: tobacco workers became the best informed working sector and vital in the fight for independence, both inside Cuba and in Tampa, where they organized in support of the Independence movement.

What other stories about sound and labor are you aware of?

Thanks to ST for the original link.

17 comments to “Roll Call: Cuban Cigar Factory Readers”

  1. Ben Tausig says:

    A famous example from ethnomusicology:


    Workers canceling stamps at the University of Ghana Post Office, 1975
    From here: http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Music-Introduction-P

  2. connor says:

    love the insight as always …… that post office piece from ghana is really wonderful

    • Ben Tausig says:

      Agreed, it's an amazing recording. I first heard it in college, and lost track of it for a few years after forgetting the source. But it's all over the place now.

  3. scott says:

    James Weldon Johnson discusses the role of the cigar factory reader in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

    Also, during the 1920s, the Kohler factory (yes, that Kohler: http://www.us.kohler.com/index.jsp) would play Sousa marches on a Victrola during meals in "The America Club" as part of their Americanization/Naturalization project. Seehttp://www.destinationkohler.com/pr/1141495866591


    • Ben Tausig says:

      Thanks for both of these references, Scott.

      It's actually gut-wrenching to reflect on the paradoxes of management strategies like Kohler's, which are simultaneously benevolent and dehumanizing. Who wouldn't want a hard-working labor force to feel happy at work, and comfortable in an adopted country? And yet, even when the factory owner means well, and treats his workers like equals, they are not his equals. And generosity for the sake of profit is still, indirectly but powerfully, exploitative.

  4. Fine Cigars says:

    “A cigar ought not to be smoked solely with the mouth, but with the hand, the eyes, and with the spirit.” – Zino Davidoff

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  7. Such an interesting idea. My job gets a bit monotonous at times, but I'm able to listen to music at work. The music helps make the days go by easier for sure. This article inspired me to consider throwing in some audio books into my routine.

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