Ever-Present Tobacco Dust: Women’s Labor Conditions at the Cibali Tobacco Factory
By Zehra Betül Atasoy
In early Republican Turkey (1923–1945), women workers – predominantly in tobacco, weaving, and the food industry – were gathered mainly in Istanbul, where industry was relatively more developed. Although the number of female workers in industrial production gradually increased, gender-based wage differences continued, with women earning less, and these workers were subjected to long hours and inadequate health and safety conditions. In fact, women were primarily concentrated in labor-intensive sectors such as tobacco and textile, requiring unskilled labor with low growth rates.
One of the rare workplaces where female labor was passed from generation to generation was the Cibali Tobacco Factory. Women and girls consistently constituted around seventy percent of the Cibali Tobacco Factory workforce in Istanbul. The factory employed generations of tobacco laborers, who were proud of their identities, and loaned this identity to the Cibali district. The Cibali Tobacco Factory was established in 1884 under the Tobacco Régie Company, which was granted monopoly rights over the domestic market. The revenue of the company was managed by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration due to the state’s debt to European countries. After the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the factory was nationalized and handed over to the Monopoly Directorate (TEKEL) in 1925. The Directorate continued to operate the factory until its closure in the mid-1990s. During this period (and until the mid-twentieth century), the factory manufactured cigarettes, tobacco, cigars, and snuff, remaining the leading tobacco factory until the establishment of the Istanbul Cigarette Factory in Maltepe in 1967.
I utilize images from a photograph album, presently housed in the Rezan Has Museum, which the Turkish Republic’s Tobacco Monopoly Administration prepared in 1940, to better understand the labor conditions of female workers. The scarcity of primary materials about these women, who did not leave letters or memoirs that would allow us to construct their experiences, poses challenges in portraying a glimpse of their lives. Also, much of the information about the factory’s institutional history has disappeared. For example, the archive of the Cibali Tobacco Factory was dissipated when it was forwarded to the Cellulose and Paper Factory Inc. (SEKA) for recycling in the 1990s. Although there is a lack of written evidence, visuals have great potential for allowing us to understand the gendered work conditions better since women are unquestionably visible in photographs
The Changes Under the Monopoly Directorate
Although the Swedish photographer Guillaume Berggren (1835–1920) initially documented the factory, including its workers, at the beginning of the twentieth century upon the request of the Régie management, it is in an album from 1940 that we get a glimpse of the changing nature of working conditions occurring there. This album makes comparisons between the old state of the factory and the technological advancements and general improvements implemented in the early Republican period. Hence, the album provides us with a unique lens through which to examine the work conditions before and after the Republican state took over the tobacco facility. We do not know who took the later photographs, but it seems that they were shot by a single photographer. Earlier photographs of the factory’s previous condition, commissioned before 1940, seem to have been added after careful editing that combined various photos taken by multiple photographers. Because the album was published after the factory became a state enterprise, it was likely prepared for propaganda purposes (on behalf of the newly established republic). Drawing attention to the improved work conditions through comparison strengthens the idea that the album was designed for propaganda.
In the 1930s, the Monopoly Directorate took some measures to provide comfort for the workers in addition to purchasing machinery from abroad to increase production rates. The factory was re-equipped with moving belts, conveyor pipes, aspirators, temperature gauges, and humidity-measuring pipes, along with new blending, banding, and cigarette-making machines and shredders. By 1938, the transportation system was improved by installing tracks and elevators between departments, thus saving time and increasing overall production. Another advancement was the placement of tables and chairs in the production units. Tobacco leaves would be laid out on the tables to be sorted, and workers would perform their tasks while sitting on chairs rather than on the floor, as they had done under the Régie administration. According to the journalist İsmail Ziya Bersis (1883–1953), although the complex was still that “old, dilapidated labyrinth-like structure”, the alterations and new installations turned the factory into a “modern” institution. Tabacco blends, which were formerly prepared manually, were produced via machinery without coming into contact with workers’ hands or feet. Instead of spraying blends with water using “buckets and dirty brooms”, humidification devices and shredders, equipped with the latest technology, were installed. Moreover, the machines in the cigarette manufacturing hall were arranged in a way to maximize the possible capacity of the building’s irregular layout.
Relatedly, one can argue that photography was employed as a propaganda tool to underscore the aforementioned spatial and technological developments under the Monopoly Directorate. The album meant to evidence the creation of a modern state-owned facility through the redesigned factory. Hence, the most dramatic photographs displaying the crude conditions of the previous management were selected for inclusion in the 1940 album as visual evidence of their sharp contrast to the reforms under the Directorate.
For example, in a photograph of the factory taken before 1940 (Figure 1), female workers sit next to one another at the center of the frame, while male supervisors and laborers are relegated to the image’s upper left-hand side. The photograph was included in the album to demonstrate previous tobacco sorting processes at the factory. What is depicted in the image is a highly disorganized department. The sorted tobacco is haphazardly stored in the background, and most of the women are seen in everyday clothing rather than uniforms. This image thus seems to be deliberately placed in this album to show the factory’s chaotic past production practices.
When it came to gender-based labor organization at the pre-1940s factory, Régie officials recruited young women to work as cigarette makers and packers at Cibali along with the company’s Salonica and Samsun factories because they found female labor to be cheaper and easier to control. These workers were celebrated for being adaptable to repetitive and tedious tasks and doing their duties rapidly. Women’s secondary role in the labor force was associated with the consideration that they were ‘naturally’ compliant, patient and eager to accept hard work and discipline. They were also less inclined to join trade unions, and hence easier to manage. The accepted difference between women and men in industrial production was strictly translated into gender-specific female or male manufacturing processes and roles in the factory. Men were generally tasked with tobacco sorting and cutting, while women were assigned to cigarette rolling and packing. This gendered division of labor brought about single-gender units. Only superintendents were allowed to be mobile between departments.
This gender-segregated division of labor of the past continued in the factory’s practices during the Republican period. Male workers were the superintendents, mechanics, or porters; women would only encounter them in the cafeteria and at the machines. Curtains separated the different production floors, and the cloistered women laborers were not visible to male workers. When it comes to gender-based division of labor, the photos do not show the technological improvements in the departments where women were employed. As mentioned above, women were expected to conduct repetitive manual labor rather than working on tasks requiring physical strength or technical knowledge. Thus, machinery in the departments where women were employed were generally not visible. Still, improved uniform order and spatial organization, such as seating units and work surfaces, are evident in these images.
In terms of the strict division of labor, the visual evidence illustrates that tobacco sorting was assigned to women in the Republican period in addition to cigarette making and packaging. The tobacco sorting included sorting the leaves following a specific recipe for each cigarette brand prepared by blenders. The only evidence in the earlier images that complicates the strict gendered division of labor is a photograph showing the manual transfer of goods between departments (Figure 2). In this image, women are seen carrying boxes containing finished products. The Republican management prepared the album to demonstrate the improvements in spatial organization and work conditions. Displaying female workers, who generally carried out the ‘delicate’ part of manufacturing, conducting hard labor shows how the new management subtextually emphasized the arduous state of the old transportation system.
Women’s Departments in the 1940 Album
At first glance, the staged photographs in the 1940 album indicate an organized and improved workspace compared to the Régie management, but the details draw a more complicated picture. The visuals show a clear separation of work surfaces in the halls where tobacco sorting took place (Figure 3). These images do not illustrate any mechanical production, but rather emphasize labor-intensive processes. Considering the irregular layout of the factory, the spatial organization of women’s departments was probably less challenging because these units did not require placing machinery in an effective manner. Facing each other, women in the tobacco sorting units would divide the tobacco leaves and drop them onto the moving conveyor belt between the wooden work surfaces. If the tobacco was of a high quality and needed careful handling, the workers would drop the leaves into wooden boxes instead. Even though the whole cigar production process is not visible in the photographs, we can see two women removing the tobacco leaves’ veins by hand. Again, as with previous images from this period, the laborers face each other, working on a wooden table while seated in their chairs (Figure 4).
The album’s photographs show that the spatial organization of the packaging department is slightly different from the rest at this time. In Figure 5, the photographer offers a wide-angle view that includes a substantial section of the hall where workers are lined up facing each other with a partition in between each row. Overall, these departments would have been less noisy compared to others due to the lack of machinery in these spaces. Since laborers were conducting their tasks facing each other in relatively quiet workspaces, they must have had the chance to converse.
In a photograph of the packaging department, we can also see a woman standing in the first row and monitoring the production process. This worker, wearing a black uniform, appears to be a supervisor. Female workers were promoted to managerial positions only if the group consisted entirely of women. Employers were reluctant to assign women to executive roles if the shop floor included both female and male workers because it would not be ‘appropriate’ for men to take orders from a female supervisor. Hence, women workers were consistently at the bottom of the workshop hierarchy; their numerical superiority did not positively impact the shop floor’s structure.
Machine operating required skill and training, and since women were considered less capable of using industrial equipment, male workers monopolized machine work. When women were assigned to machine-related tasks, it was usually as overseers or tenders, which included loading, unloading, and the basic maintenance of the machines. It is important to emphasize that women also worked with machines in the factory, yet not as machinists (Figure 6).
Spatial Quality, Technology, and Health
Considering the spatial and technological qualities of the shop floor, it is noteworthy that the production halls in the photographs look highly luminous with daylight entering through the large openings. Artificial lighting in the packaging unit is noticeable. However, it is clear that this form of lighting, with the ceiling lamps suspended far above the work surfaces, would not have been sufficient to carry out such repetitive task, especially during the night shifts.
Finally, regarding ventilation, tobacco dust posed one of the biggest problems. Although the ventilation systems were improved in the late 1930s, they were still inadequate by 1945. When Sadi Irmak, the Minister of Labor at the time, had a meeting with workers, one of the representatives inquired whether exposure to tobacco dust positively impacted the retirement age because it caused health problems in the long run. Furthermore, tobacco leaf powder is visible in the photographs themselves. These images show how work surfaces were filled with tobacco dust, and the wrists of workers’ white uniforms are noticeably darker due to the tobacco leaf powder (for example, in Figure 3 and Figure 6). The workers’ head coverings are also distinctly whiter than the rest of their uniforms. Thus, women, who worked directly with tobacco leaves without wearing any personal protection materials, were prone to occupational diseases such as asthma, skin allergies (mainly due to extracting leaf veins), and eye irritation, which occurred due to insufficient lighting in addition to exposure to tobacco dust.
More prevalently, workers were prone to tuberculosis. In the 1940s, when they checked in for examination, eighty percent of the tobacco workers were diagnosed with tuberculosis. These cases were not related to tobacco and cigarette use among laborers but rather were a direct result of their poor working and living conditions, and their vulnerability to the ever-present tobacco dust. Female workers also experienced other diseases, such as menstrual disorders and postpartum hemorrhage. Since nicotine is excreted in breast milk, it also had detrimental effects on newborns.
It is not possible to uncover the actual flow of everyday work conditions; however, photographs offer great possibilities when textual material on underrepresented groups, in this case female industrial workers, is scarce. That said, how objective is what we see in photographs? Images convey information quickly and are employed in propaganda, and frames can be manipulated. Yet, what is evident in an image can also have a great deal of detailed information when examined closely, and visual documentation animates daily life. Hence, we can still draw certain conclusions from reading the content of photographs, especially by juxtaposing them with other forms of evidence.
With this paper, I aimed to provide a glimpse of female workers’ quotidian lives at the Cibali Tobacco Factory, since despite the fact that women comprised the majority of its workforce, most of the documents of the early Republican period remained gender-blind. The visuals demonstrate that female workers were at the bottom hierarchically in labor division. I also underscored the underreported issues of health and hierarchy in the workplace through photographs. The photographs reveal harsh and unsanitary work conditions that are not evident in written sources. Yet they sometimes obscure specific facts due to the nature of visual documentation. For example, the pace of work was fast, as laborers got paid according to the quantity produced. We cannot observe movement in the visuals, but it is not difficult to imagine the rate of speed. Another invisible aspect appears in the form of tobacco dust. Considering the dominance of tobacco in the visuals, one can imagine that the shop floor was filled with tobacco dust. Although the volumes of the rooms are free from the dust in the images, shop floors were saturated with it, which is only evident on the women’s uniforms. In short, while the photographs reveal some labor-intensive work environments, they can also hide the most significant problems, such as the necessity of working hastily for pieceworkers and tobacco dust filling the shop floor.
 Ahmet Makal, “Türkiye’de Erken Cumhuriyet Döneminde Kadın Emeği”, Çalışma ve Toplum 2 (2010): 26, 32; Ahmet Makal, “Türkiye’de 1950-1965 Döneminde Ücretli Kadın Emeğine İlişkin Gelişmeler”, Ankara Üniversitesi SBF Dergisi 56:2 (2001): 135, 136.
 Fatma Doğruel and Suut Doğruel, Osmanlı’dan Günümüze Tekel (Istanbul: Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfı, 2000), 278.
 It is noteworthy that the retired workers and officers participated in the Cibali Talks (Cibali Sohbetleri) series, held at Rezan Has Museum between October 2018 and February 2020, in which various scholars presented their research. In these events, the factory’s employees commemorated Cibali in a very positive way.
 Doğruel and Doğruel, Osmanlı’dan Günümüze Tekel, 273, 277, 279.
 Nadir Yurtoğlu, “Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nde Tütün Tekeli ve Sigara Fabrikalarının Tarihsel Gelişimi (1923-1950)”, Akademik Tarih ve Düşünce Dergisi 5:17 (2018): 100.
 BCA 490-1-0-0/1455-38-1, “İnhisarlar İdaresinin Tarihçesi, Cumhuriyet Rejiminde Tütün ve İçkilerimiz”, July 1938.
 İsmail Ziya Bersis, “İnhisarlar idaresinin İstanbul tütün fabrikası”, Tütün Mecmuası, 2:17 (1939), 3.
 Can Nacar, Labor and Power in the Late Ottoman Empire: Tobacco Workers, Managers, and the State, 1872-1912 (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 68, 74.
 Gülhan Balsoy, “Gendering Ottoman Labor History: The Cibali Régie Factory in the Early Twentieth Century”, IRSH 54 (2009): 58–62.
 Eser Selen and Mary Lou O’Neil, “‘I am here’: women workers’ experiences at the former Cibali Tekel Tobacco and Cigarette Factory in Istanbul”, Gender, Place & Culture 24:8 (2017): 1175.
 Yildiz Ecevit, “Shop floor control: The ideological construction of Turkish women factory workers”, in Working Women: International Perspectives on Labour and Gender Ideology, ed. Nanneke Redclift and M. Thea Sinclair (London: Routledge, 1991), 61, 65.
 Ecevit, “Shop floor control: The ideological construction of Turkish women factory workers”, 64, 65.
 “Çalışma bakanı dün işçilerle görüştü”, Cumhuriyet, 18 July 1945.
 For contemporary occupational health problems among tobacco factory workers, see E. Penven et al., “Occupational asthma to dried tobacco leaves: a very delayed diagnosis”, Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology 25:2 (2015): 144–145; B. S. Wali, V. N. Patil, and P. D. Raut, “Occupational Health Profile and problems Among Female Workers Processing Dried Tobacco Leaves in Tobacco Industries”, Journal of Ecophysiology and Occupational Health 14:1–2 (2014): 12–16.
 “Sosyal ve sıhhi bakımdan: Tütün işçisi nasıl yaşıyor?!”, Sendika, 19 October 1946.
 The factory offered its male workers 15 cigarettes per day. In 1950, the management decided to supply 10 cigarettes per day to its female workers as well. See “Küçük Haberler”, Yeni İstanbul, 13 May 1950. However, this does not necessarily indicate cigarette consumption among workers because they might have sold and/or given away the discarded cigarettes provided by the factory management.
 “İşçi Sağlığı: Tütün İşçilerinin Sağlık Durumları”, Sendika, 21 September 1946.
Zehra Betül Atasoy holds a Ph.D. in Urban Systems-History, from a joint degree program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University. She received her bachelor’s degree in architecture and her master’s degree in history of architecture from Istanbul Technical University. Her research focuses on the urban quotidian practices of women and the lived experience of health in the urban environment of early Republican Turkey. She is currently a lecturer at Kadir Has University, Faculty of Art and Design.
Further articles in the TRAFO series Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor:
Rick Halpern, The Rational Factory, Labour, and the Fordist Visual Imaginary, 14 June 2022
Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri, Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions, 05 April 2022
Citation: Zehra Betül Atasoy, Ever-Present Tobacco Dust: Women’s Labor Conditions at the Cibali Tobacco Factory , in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.07.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/39612