A Brief History Of Tobacco In America

  • Category: American History
  • Words: 2814
  • Grade: 95

        Tobacco has played an enormous part in the economy and society of America.
Since Columbus landed in the New World, Europeans have been exposed to the tobacco
plant. And when Europeans settled in North America, this was, in many places, their most
important crop. For years, it provided the newly founded colonies with a primary export
and source of income. Tobacco maintained its importance throughout the 17th and most
of the 18th century as well, only towards the beginning of the 19th century seeing a
defined decrease in its production in America (Kluger, 63). It is still a huge market today,
however. Throughout its long history in America, the tobacco industry, as with most, has
been constantly changing. New, more convenient forms of production and distribution
made it easier to produce and sell larger numbers of tobacco products as the years went
on. However, there wasn't as much of a demand for American tobacco as the years went
on. Basically, despite the fact that the quantity of tobacco produced yearly and its
economic importance decreased over time, the means of production and selling became
increasingly easier and more convenient.
        The Jamestown colony, founded in 1607, was the first settlement in America to
make great use of tobacco. They, under the guidance of John Rolfe, had perfected
methods of growing and curing tobacco, and had a huge European market, as many
people simply could not get enough of "the weed", as it came to be known. In 1613,
Rolfe sent 200 pounds of his tobacco to England, from where demands for more soon
came (Johnson). Rolfe was competing with the Spanish tobacco market, so he imported
seeds from Spain so he could grow a sweeter type of tobacco, and his success in selling to
England continued.
        The success that Jamestown experienced in growing and selling tobacco is
reflected in how much tobacco they grew there. So much was grown, in fact, that it
covered the farms and streets. It eventually led to government intervention, and the
deputy governor of Jamestown prohibited anyone from growing tobacco unless they also
grew at least two acres of corn for food purposes, as many farmers had been neglecting to
grow crops vital for life, focusing instead on tobacco as their sole crop (Link Exchange).
This demonstrates how vital tobacco production really was to the early American settlers
and their survival as colonies. It is arguable that without tobacco, either the American
colonies would not have survived or they would not have expanded and populated
themselves so quickly. (Johnson) Jamestown did, of course, face many hardships in their
early years, and some of the tension was relieved by the tobacco plant and the trade with
England that the colonies were able to institute due to their abundance of the highly
sought weed. Its popularity and abundance had spread from Virginia to Delaware,
Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas by the mid 17th century, and it played an
equally important part in each of those colonies and their survival.
        Tobacco was such an important crop during American settlement that it eventually
came to be used as legal tender. By 1633, tobacco had become the basic measure of
value. Everything from food to taxes was paid for with the "golden leaves". This only
led to more production of the plant, which was still being produced in exorbitant amounts
for the demands of England. All over the Middle and Southern colonies, tobacco was
being grown as far as the eye could see. So much, in fact, that it soon became too much.
Led by the Carolinas and Maryland, the colonies soon agreed that the supply was
exceeding the demand for tobacco. Despite several Acts passed by the colonial
governments, many tobacco farmers did not lessen the amount of tobacco they grew or
        Throughout this time- that of the early American colonies such as Jamestown in
the 1600's - tobacco was grown on farms of varying size. The final stages of its
production were rather simple. The tobacco would simply be harvested, and allowed to
dry out while cured (Kluger, 32). It was then shipped, in large hogshead barrels, to
England or wherever it may be going. Upon arriving there, it would be sold. Dried
tobacco was sold in a loose form, rather than rolled, which was to be smoked in pipes.
Pipe smoking was the only method of smoking tobacco that experienced widespread use
during the 17th and early 18th centuries. This time period exhibits the most primitive
forms of production of the final tobacco products.
        The early 1700's marked the beginning of a new method of selling tobacco in
America. Until this time, most sales had been made privately and personally between a
farmer and merchant or larger distributor (Drummond, 219). Now, farmers took their
tobacco to a market, where the hogsheads, in which the tobacco is shipped, were opened
and the quality of the weed was inspected. They were then repackaged, marked by
weight, and prepared to be sent off to England. Auctions were also used, but didn't have
much popularity at this time.
        Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the tobacco industry was, of course, a
large and very lucrative one. It catalyzed the economic growth and structure of Colonial
America. Small market towns were developed in response to the growing demand for
tobacco (Johnson). Many jobs were created, as farmers were needed to grow the tobacco
and harvest it; merchants, to buy and sell the tobacco; and production companies to dry
and cure the leaves into smokeable products. Most of the tobacco produced in America
was done so by family-owned farms and companies. Very few large tobacco companies
were present during this time, as most of the American role in tobacco production was
merely growing it, since it was then sold overseas in the leafy state.
        The amount of tobacco that was produced during the 17th century, as well as the
farmers' dedication to their biggest cash crop, show how vital the tobacco plant really was
to the colonies at this time. So vital, in fact, that the very leaves that were being sold to
England and grown so abundantly were also used to purchase other things the colonists
needed. This time period is undoubtedly the one during which tobacco enjoyed its
greatest importance to both the economy and society, as it aided the nascent colonies, and
was, at least partly, responsible for their success in surviving. All things in the colonies at
this time were, directly or indirectly, related to the growing, selling, or production of
tobacco. It is also the time period during which final tobacco products were produced by
the simplest means, as nearly all tobacco was merely dried and cured, sold to be smoked in
pipes rather than cigars or other rolled forms.
        Throughout the close of the 18th century, the amount of tobacco produced in
America decreased drastically, and for a multitude of reasons. One, years of producing
tobacco on the same land would render it nutrient deficient, and it would then yield less
quantity and quality of tobacco as time went on (Link Exchange) . For this reason, and
the fact that farmers were becoming interested in a variety of other crops, especially
cotton, less tobacco was being planted over the years. Also, some of the middle colonies
were shifting their economic focus more towards industry than agriculture, leaving that to
the South. By the time the 19th century dawned, bringing with it the Industrial and
Transportation Revolutions, the North and most Middle Colonies focused solely on
industry and new methods of transportation. These new developments explain why
tobacco was not produced as much during the 19th century as it was during the previous
        Despite this, however, advancements were still made in the way in which final
tobacco products were sold at market. Beginning in the mid 18th century, several new
methods of selling tobacco were used. The auction system gained immense popularity,
with independent sellers bringing their tobacco to market, and selling to the highest bidder
whatever amount he had. Often, the person selling the tobacco would have someone run
up the bid for them in an attempt to make a larger profit. The widespread interest in the
auction system emanated from both the buyer's and seller's dislike of the role of inspector,
which was associated with previous methods of selling tobacco in warehouses to be
shipped overseas. In the early 1800's, speculation was evident and occurred frequently in
the tobacco business. Speculators knew when to buy at a low price, then quickly sell at a
high, for a substantial profit (Johnson). Although forbidden by law to do so, some
inspectors took part in speculation, thus biasing their grading of the tobacco. To counter
this, the auction system was implemented, and experienced increasing growth and
acceptance throughout the close of the 18th century and the dawn of the 19th, further
advancing the way in which tobacco was sold.
        As far as the actual production of the final tobacco products is concerned during
the 18th and 19th centuries, not much changed in comparison to methods used earlier in
history. The leaves were still grown, harvested, and dried in similar or identical fashions
as they had been since the beginning of the tobacco plant in America. The process of
curing the tobacco was made more efficient during the early 19th century, when heated
brick flues replaced smoky, open fires as the preferred method of curing tobacco (Kluger,
6). Cigars were now becoming a more popular method of smoking than pipes, and they
were all made by hand. Tobacco was shredded into tiny pieces, which were to be used as
"filler" for the cigars. This filler was wrapped in several larger pieces of the leaf, usually
one half of a leaf strips, which were rolled around the filler into a cylindrical cigar.
Tobacco, during these days, usually cost about 3 to 6 cents for a pound. Cigars,
therefore, were sold for about four for a penny (Yearbook). Many farmers rolled their
own cigars, after growing the tobacco right on their own land. These were, on the
average, of especially poor quality, and rarely sold. These "common" cigars, as they came
to be known, were more often traded at market for a variety of goods. Also, they were
not kept in boxes, but rather something known as the "bundle", which consisted of a
hundred cigars tied together with a strip of rope.
        Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, however, tobacco companies were
present in America in greater abundance, as cigars themselves were now being produced
in addition to just the tobacco. The majority of these small companies were family-owned,
and operated in a small back room or summer house of the family. The father, mother,
children, and perhaps grandparents usually made up the entire work force. The mother or
older children were responsible for monitoring the drying and curing of the tobacco leaves,
and breaking them up into filler, or keeping the leaves that would eventually be used for
wrapping leaves relatively moist. They would also sheath the leaves, which involved
scraping them flat and clean. The father, in most cases, would roll the cigars. For this, he
implemented a special tool located on the rolling table (Keeports). Filler tobacco was
placed onto a short piece of cloth connected to the table, and down into a groove
approximately the size of a cigar. A wrapping leaf was then placed over top of the
tobacco filled groove, and by pulling a lever, the rolling machine would push the filler up
while rolling the wrapping leaf around it, producing a crude form of the cigar known as a
"stogey" (Keeports). This nearly completed cigar, with about 20 others, was now placed
into a wooden press which consisted of two boards that had cylindrical holes in them for
the cigars. The boards, containing cigars to be pressed, were stacked on one another, and
placed into a press which was manually operated by turning a crank to apply pressure to
the boards, thus condensing and helping to solidify the cigars. They were left in this state
for a day or so, and then removed. They were then covered, by hand-rolling, with a finer
quality, final wrapping leaf, producing the completed cigar product. Cigars made by this
involved method were among the finer quality ones of the time.
        Although tobacco's economic importance in America decreased as the 18th and
19th centuries occurred, it was still grown in the South and West, just not nearly as
superfluously as it once had been. Despite having less economic necessity to the country,
tobacco was being sold in newer, more effective methods. The auction system greatly
increased the ease and interest with which people bought and sold tobacco in America.
Also, technology had created ways to produce better quality cigars, and made it possible
to do so in shorter amounts of time than those necessary to produce crude cigars that
were entirely hand-rolled.
        The 20th century saw what was most likely the greatest amount of change within
the tobacco industry, all aspects considered, over such a short amount of time. The
economic importance, ease of production, and methods of marketing and selling products
all changed radically during this century. The trend of decreasing economic importance
was continued, as were the ones of increased ease of production and selling of products.
This century helped immensely to shape the industry of tobacco into what it is today.
        As time went on, the economic importance that the tobacco industry experienced
continued to decrease. By the 20th century, the American tobacco industry shifted almost
exclusively to cigarette production as compared to that of cigars. Less tobacco was
grown in America than in centuries past, and the economy relied even less on this industry,
much different than the colonial American period, when tobacco was the backbone of the
country's economy. Controversy over the safety of tobacco products, although evident for
quite some time now, exploded in the 1900's in the form of accusations, lawsuits, and
boycotts of tobacco products. More economic fields were being created, with great
rapidity, each taking away from the importance of every other field, and the same was true
with respect to that of tobacco. Despite this fact, great advances were made in the
methods of both producing and selling tobacco products.
        Only during the 20th century did the tobacco industry encounter a great deal of
agronomy which increased its ease of harvesting the plant. Until the 1950's, the entire
process of growth, harvesting, and curing would consume well over 400 hours per acre
(Kluger, 5). This decade is the one during which mechanization sped up the previously
extremely laborious processes of transplanting, fertilizing, and hauling. Even today,
despite the dramatic increase in farming technology, it still takes approximately 200 hours
of labor to get tobacco from the ground to market. The finest cigars produced during this
time period were still made primarily by hand. The cigar press enjoyed some
advancements, however, as new materials were used to hold the cigars such as plastics and
alloys as compared to wood.
        The greatest advances made during this century in the tobacco industry are the
ways in which the cigars and other tobacco products were packaged and sold. Cigars,
originally sold in bundles, which was merely a rope holding together a hundred of them,
were now packed exclusively in boxes or single, plastic covered packs. The boxes
contained anywhere from five to one hundred cigars. The price of cigars was now about
five cents, or 2 for five cents for especially cheaply made ones (Keeports). These prices
are from the earlier part of the 20th century. The once widely used auction system
declined during the middle and end of the 1900's, and the large scale selling and
purchasing of tobacco went back to a private relationship between farmers and the
tobacco companies.
        The tobacco industry, although highly mutable throughout its relatively long
history in America, has repeatedly played an important, if not crucial, part in the
economic growth and stability of this country. It almost single-handedly aided the early
colonies in establishing a secure economy. The multiple stages of growing and production
involved in the industry created a plethora of jobs, further stabilizing the economy. It
provided America with a globally desired export, and therefore a large source of income,
for years. By exporting tobacco to numerous foreign nations, America's foreign relations
improved quickly and steadily following its birth as a new nation. Tobacco started out as
the sole cash crop in America, and it was vital to economic success. Over the years, its
importance has gradually faded, though it is still grown today. Also over the years,
numerous technological advances have been made in the field of cigars and other tobacco
products. Newer, more efficient production methods have made it easier to create finer
quality products, at cheaper costs, and in less time. Developments have also occurred in
the way in which tobacco was sold. From the time of the merchant and warehouse
system, the auction system has since risen and fallen, and the personal farmer-producer
business relationship has developed. In conclusion, the tobacco industry and all its aspects
with all of their many changes, has helped to shape the American economy, from the
beginning of colonial settlement to the present day.
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