What’s A Lector?

Lector's chair set for Anna In The Tropics, July 28, 2012

The lector’s chair on the set for the BLT/Latino Theatre Projects production of Anna In The Tropics, July 28, 2012. Photo by Craig Orsinger for Burien Little Theatre.

One of the interesting ideas in the play Anna In The Tropics is the role of a lector. This got me to wondering, just what is a lector? The dictionary definition is:

a lecturer in a college or university

Which, of course, has very little to do with making cigars, the means of employment of many characters in this play. It turns out, though, that at least among Cuban cigar makers, there was another kind of lector:

Cigar makers in Florida and New York would sometimes pool their wages to hire a “lector” to read newspapers or political tracts aloud to them while they worked. Lectors read all matter [sic] of materials, but tended to favor left-of-center and pro-union writings.

As a National Public Radio (NPR) interview with the son of a cigar factory lector noted, they would read virtually anything that was requested, and often read novels or other works of fiction.

This might seem an odd profession in our day, but working in manufacturing would often be even more boring and repetitive than it is today. Machine tools of the time were much cruder, so rolling cigars was done by hand, often by illiterate workers. Where today we have portable devices that can play music or “educational” material like talk radio, at the time this was an innovative way to keep the workers from growing bored. It also sounds like a good way for workers to stay informed and entertained, things that weren’t easy to come by in their lives. As Miranda Marquit wrote in “20 Jobs That Have Disappeared”:


In New York City and Florida, cigar makers often became bored. They hired lectors to read to them while they worked. Lectors could read just about any material requested, and were paid using pooled wages of the workers. Lectors were placed in a chair on a raised platform so that most of the workers could hear.

While I have found no mention of lectors in other industries, Anna In The Tropics is not alone in mentioning their role in cigar manufacturing through the 1920s. Sadly, as NPR noted, it’s a type of job that modern machinery has made obsolete.

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