During the day, as we go from ATM to self checkout at the grocery store to a pay-at-the-pump gas station or electronic ticket machine in the subway, we’re constantly surrounded by signs of increased mechanization and the ghosts of jobs that are becoming obsolete: bank teller, checker, attendant. Now I’m not one to moan that we are losing great jobs. Having worked as a desk jockey in big-box retail, I can say that some of these jobs aren’t that great and shouldn’t be performed by humans in the first place. Nonetheless, there is a certain romantic air to many vocations that have gone extinct, like milkmen and pin setters in a bowling alley. My personal favorite is el lector or “reader” at a cigar factory.
The practice of having los lectores in the factories started in the mid-19th century, probably in Cuba. The idea spread from there to the United States, where the lector was a staple of the cigar industry until the 1930s. Bascially, lectores were well-dressed, well-educated men who were paid to read to factory workers while they rolled tobacco. Sometimes they would read novels or newspapers, other times political tracts or works of literature.
Days in the cigar factories were divided into four periods. In the first, the lectores read from newspapers; in the second they read news from labor organizations. The third and fourth periods were reserved for culture, entertainment and novels. The finest lectores were more than readers. They were performers who brought life to the world’s great literature and teachers who informed the workers about labor and political movements.
It was a highly competitive job; you had to have a good speaking voice and excellent reading skills. Often an extensive audition process was held to select a lector at that factory, and they were typically paid by the workers themselves. Then end result of the tradition was that tobacco workers were often the most informed members of the working class in the late-19th and early-20th century. Nonetheless, with the advent of mechanization in the factories and the development of radio, the practice quickly died out most places.
However, the practice is not completely dead. Lectores still appear in cigar factories in Cuba. They aren’t necessarily the well-dressed educators of the early-20th century, but they are still good readers and responsible for disseminating important information to the workers. They also get to use microphones, which was not the case with the traditional lector, who had to balance eloquence with projection.