5. The Jamestown Colony and the cultivation of tobacco
In May 1607, colonists from Britain landed in Virginia and established themselves at James Fort, later James Towne, along the James River. They could not have picked a worse time. The region was in the middle of a three-year drought. The natives, though not openly hostile at first, were wary of the new arrivals. It was too late in the year to plant crops, and survival of the few they did plant was rare. Over 80% of the first group of settlers died in the ensuing period, known as the Starving Time. Recent excavations at the site indicated the settlers may have resorted to cannibalism. Relief expeditions did little to alleviate the suffering and the colonists abandoned the settlement in 1610. They returned to the settlement after encountering another relief expedition in the James River.
One of the enduring myths of the Jamestown settlement is the colonists discovered native tobacco and transformed it into a cash crop, saving the colony. In 1610, John Rolfe arrived at the colony, bringing with him tobacco seeds from plants cultivated by shipwreck survivors he encountered in Bermuda. Rolfe was aware of the soaring popularity of tobacco in England. He reasoned that he could harvest tobacco in Virginia and generate a cash crop for the investors in the colony, enriching himself in the process. The Spanish tobacco seeds Rolfe brought from Bermuda produced a sweeter leaf than those of the native Virginia strains. Rolfe harvested his first crop in 1614, having established Varina Farms, the first of the great Virginia tobacco plantations, two years earlier. By 1618 Rolfe was a wealthy man, and Virginia tobacco was the preferred leaf among British consumers.
6. Rolfe’s success led to a boom for the Virginia Colony
In 1622, the year John Rolfe died (his wife, Pocahontas, whom he called Rebecca, had died in 1617) all of British North America was called Virginia by most Englishmen. The tiny English colony was subject to the predations of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and the natives, as well as the pirates which roamed the seas. The fact the colony survived, and succeeded, can be attributed to one product. That product was Rolfe’s tobacco, which merged Spanish seeds and Virginia’s soil and climate. Settlers swarmed the Virginia lands along its tidal rivers, the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac. Plantations stretched from the riverbanks inland, planted in the gold of the Virginia Colony, tobacco. As the fields expanded, so did the need for more hands to plant the crops, nurse them, harvest them, and cure and ship the leaf. Until 1619 that labor came primarily from indentured servants.
The Portuguese initiated African slavery in the New World, purchasing enslaved people in Africa and transporting them to their sugar colonies in Brazil. The French soon followed suit, as did the British, resorting to African slave labor for their colonies on the Caribbean Islands. In 1619 the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, an event noted by Rolfe in his diary. Whether Rolfe purchased any of the enslaved Africans is uncertain, he recorded that “20 and odd Negroes” had been purchased in exchange for what he called “victuals”. Virginia’s booming tobacco industry led the colony into the transatlantic slave trade, an eventual Civil War, and over four centuries of racial inequality in what became the United States. That same year more than 40,000 pounds of Virginia leaf were shipped to England. Within twelve years the tobacco shipped from the Virginia plantations exceeded 1.5 million pounds.
7. The British government warned of the dangers of tobacco use in 1604
King James VI and I, of Scotland, England and Ireland, loathed the use of tobacco by his subjects. It was he for whom the colony of Jamestown was named, as well as the James River on which it was located. Nonetheless, King James was not appreciative of the product of the new colony. In 1604, 360 years before the US Surgeon General issued his first report on the harmful aspects of smoking, James made his position on smoking clear in pamphlet he titled, A Counterblaste to Tobacco. James unfairly blamed the natives in America for exposing Europeans to tobacco use. He condemned the exposure by smokers to others, who were forced to inhale what later became known as second-hand smoke. He imposed strict taxes on tobacco, which raised the price to consumers.
In justification of his actions James wrote smoking was, “A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.” Two decades later he had a change of heart. He created a Royal monopoly on tobacco from Virginia and Bermuda, helping the colonies to increase their profitability. In 1624 over 7,000 shops, markets, and taverns sold tobacco in London alone, the vast majority of it from the plantations in Virginia. For merchants and tavernkeepers to sell tobacco to patrons, a license which cost fifteen pounds annually was required. The fifteen pounds went directly into the Royal treasury, meaning the author of A Counterblaste to Tobacco made considerable profit from the sale of the hated product.
8. Virginia tobacco planters were among the first vendors to brand their products
As the tobacco plantations in Virginia’s Tidewater region expanded, variations in the quality of the leaf they produced emerged. For some planters, their tobacco, cured and packed in hogsheads, was sent to huge warehouses which lined the waterfronts in Richmond, Alexandria, Georgetown, and Fredericksburg. Other large planters had direct access to ships using docks and wharves built on their plantation’s waterfront. Variations in the curing process, which affected the quality of the leaf, gave some planters reputations for high-quality product, while others ranked beneath them on the competitive totem pole. Some planters, including Augustus Washington, father of George, began the practice of marking their hogsheads with brands, burned into the staves of the barrel. It was one of the first instances of product branding in history.
In 1730 the Virginia House of Burgesses enacted the Tobacco Inspection Act. The act designated 40 locations where tobacco was inspected by government-employed agents. Tobacco which passed was then branded by the inspector. Tobacco which did not was destroyed. No other American produce of the land was subject to government inspection at the time. Wheat, rye, barley, corn, pork, lamb, and other items for human consumption went to market without government inspection for quality or safety. The inspection brand ensured purchasers received a product which met or exceeded the high-quality standards established by the Virginia legislature. Tobacco was thus one of the first products to be regulated by government intervention in America. Smaller planters looked for ways to evade inspection, and smuggling expanded along the Virginia coastline.
9. The Tobacco Lords created a near-monopoly on American tobacco
In 1710 the French Crown granted the Scottish city of Glasgow sole rights to import tobacco to French territories, and France itself. Glasgow’s advantages of having a sheltered, deepwater port on the west coast of the British Isles gave it ready access to tobacco ships driven by the prevailing westerly winds from the British colonies in America. Glaswegian merchants entered an economic expansion which lasted for most of the 18th century, importing tobacco and other products from America. The merchants also entered the transatlantic slave trade and vast fortunes were acquired by several Glaswegians. The most successful became known as the Tobacco Lords. It was they who determined the prices paid for the American planters’ crops, and in what in a later day would be called collusion they controlled the economics of the tobacco trade.
The most successful American planters acquired vast fortunes in terms of land and chattel slaves, but hard money in the colonies was scarce. Even the most successful of the planters, with names such as Washington, Lee, Fairfax, Custis, Randolph, Mason, Jefferson, and others all had to borrow money from the merchants in Scotland and England to purchase the items needed to plant their crops and furnish their estates. In return, they sent their crops to the merchants for sale on consignment. With the merchants controlling the ultimate price they paid the planters, many of the latter found themselves in debt, year after year. By the 1750s, with little hard currency, Virginia and North Carolina planters used their tobacco to settle local debts, for the purchase of land or slaves for example. Virginia planters began to petition Parliament for redress with little success.
10. Tobacco had a significant impact on the American Revolution
In Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware the majority of tobacco planters were heavily indebted to their merchants and lenders in Britain, where the Tobacco Lords in Glasgow manipulated prices to their own benefit. By the time of the Seven Years’ War, known in America as the French and Indian War, the Tobacco Lords in Glasgow handled more of the tobacco trade from America than all other British ports combined. Virginia and Maryland planters, many of whose names are among the Founding Fathers, were in debt to the tune of the equivalent of $200 million in today’s money. Anger with Britain among the Southern gentry over debt had as much impact on British-American relations as the taxes levied by Parliament. Indebtedness threatened the loss of land for many viewed by their fellow Americans as wealthy.
The American Revolutionary War allowed the planters to turn the tables on the Tobacco Lords. Tobacco crops were used by the newly formed state governments and the Continental Congress to finance the war loans received from France. Following the war, most of the debts incurred prior to hostilities were simply ignored by the planters, many of whom abandoned tobacco as their main cash crop. The Tobacco Lords in Glasgow turned their attention to the sugar and cotton markets in the colonies held by Britain in the Caribbean. Tobacco, or more accurately the tobacco trade, was thus both a contributing factor to the American Revolution and a means of financing it. Following the war, a domestic tobacco industry emerged in the United States, and the sale of their crops was no longer limited to the mother country for American tobacco planters.
11. Cigars gradually replaced pipes and created a new tobacco industry in the 18th century
Sailors on the earliest voyages of exploration to the Americas observed the natives smoking tobacco rolled into tubes, held together by a large leaf wrapper. They adopted the habit, and it spread among the world’s ports. In 1762 Israel Putnam, later to be a hero of the American Revolution, returned to his native Connecticut after serving in the British Army briefly in Cuba. He brought with him Havana tobacco seeds, and a taste for the cigars he had acquired during his travels. Cigar factories were soon operating in Hartford, and tobacco grown from the Cuban seeds appeared in the Connecticut Valley, where it is still grown today, primarily for its use as cigar wrappers. Spanish trade with Havana led to cigars making their appearance in Spain about fifty years before they became popular in Connecticut.
By the 1820s, cigars were popular throughout Europe and the United States, displacing the pipe as the favored means of smoking tobacco. In Wheeling, Virginia, in 1840, Mifflin Marsh opened a cigar factory located along the Ohio River, which he named Marsh Wheeling. He produced a cigar he called the Marsh Wheeling Stogie. Rivermen plying the Ohio-Mississippi routes carried the cigars on their voyages, and the word stogie became a slang term for cigars throughout the Midwest and South. By the end of the antebellum period, cigars had become so popular that smoking lounges appeared on riverboats, smoking cars on trains, and smoking rooms in hotels and inns. All were the havens of men. The consumption of tobacco in any form by women was no longer considered socially acceptable. In Europe, cigars soon faced competition from yet another item designed to enable the inhaling of tobacco smoke.
12. The cigarette gained fashion during the Crimean War
By the mid-1800s tobacco was grown, processed, and traded across the globe. The expanding British Empire and competition for trade carried tobacco use to remote Pacific islands. It was grown and used in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, in Africa, and across the Americas. Primarily it was consumed by either smoking or chewing, the latter being especially popular in the United States, where each desk in the United States Senate was equipped with its own spittoon. On both sides of the Atlantic, the use of snuff had fallen into disfavor, considered a foppish affectation. Only in the Muslim world where sharia law held sway was tobacco banned, though at times several nations attempted to ban smoking. Several different types of tobacco were considered of the highest quality, particularly Virginia, Cuban, and in western Europe, Turkish. Cigars were the primary device for smoking tobacco, followed by pipes.
Tobacco wrapped in paper cylinders first appeared in France in the early 1830s. They were not immediately popular, though the French name for them, cigarette, has served as their descriptive ever since. During the Crimean War, French and British troops observed their enemies’ rolling tobacco in paper, usually newspaper, and smoking them. The troops took the idea home with them, but rolling one’s own cigarette was the rule. Commercially manufactured cigarettes, made by hand in tobacconists’ shops, were expensive. Only the more well-to-do could afford them, and they became a sign of conspicuous success. Even the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes smoked cigarettes (as well as cigars and pipes). His were made for him by his London tobacconist. Most cigarette smokers though were not so fortunate as Holmes, and had to roll their own cigarettes before smoking them.
13. The advent of commercially manufactured cigarettes changed the tobacco industry
In 1876 a Richmond, Virginia tobacco processing firm then known as John F. Allen and Company offered a $75,000 prize for a cigarette rolling machine (equivalent to $ 1.75 million today). Several inventors attempted to win the sizable amount of cash. A Virginia inventor, James Albert Bonsack, filed a patent application for such a machine in 1880. He offered the machine to the Allen company, then renamed Allen and Ginter. They decided the machine was insufficiently reliable and rejected it, preferring to keep the reward money and designing a similar machine for their use, which did not infringe on Bonsack’s patent. Bonsack turned to another cigarette manufacturer, James Buchanan Duke, head of W. Duke and Sons in Richmond. By the end of the decade, Duke controlled 40% of the American cigarette market. That year Duke took over the four major competitors to his company, including Allen and Ginter.
Duke’s new conglomerate was named the American Tobacco Company. His near-monopoly controlled 90% of American cigarette production at the turn of the 20th century. He turned his attention to controlling the lucrative market for cigarettes in Britain and Ireland, and to prevent his doing so several British manufacturers merged to form the Imperial Tobacco Company. Imperial Tobacco attempted to break into the American market, and competition between the two tobacco giants led to an agreement. Under the agreement, American Tobacco controlled the market in the Americas, Imperial in Britain, and the companies formed a joint venture, British American Tobacco, to market primarily cigarettes in the rest of the world, including the British Empire. In 1906, American Tobacco, found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, was broken up into four companies, Ligget and Myer’s (L & M), Lorillard, R. J. Reynolds, and American Tobacco.
14. Cigarette smoking became the dominant form of tobacco consumption in the early 20th century
The advent of commercially manufactured cigarettes, and aggressive advertising for them, led to a boom in tobacco consumption across the globe. Even before cigarettes were commercially manufactured on a large scale, Allen and Ginter had introduced cigarette cards in their packets of cigarettes. Collections of the cards, in multiple different series, encouraged smoking. The women’s suffrage movements adopted cigarette smoking as a sign of equality, even as they merged with temperance movements to suppress alcohol consumption. Women smoking was considered a social outrage among the male leaders of the day. In 1908, a woman smoking in public in New York City was arrested for her effrontery. Congress considered banning women from smoking in the District of Columbia in the early 1920s. Eager to develop a new market for their products, cigarette companies marketed brands directly towards women.
As had happened with snuffboxes centuries earlier, manufacturers developed new fashion items to accommodate smokers. Cigarette cases, slim boxes often made of gold or silver, elegantly engraved, appeared in jewelry stores, tobacco shops, and in department stores. They afforded the user a more debonair means of carrying cigarettes than the packs in which the product was delivered by manufacturers. Lighters also appeared, ranging in style from the mundane, mass-produced Ronson to jeweled custom-designed lighters from Tiffany. Women’s use of cigarettes expanded widely during the First World War and in the Roaring Twenties, despite efforts by governments around the world to contain it. By the 1930s women smoked freely in public, in the increasingly popular films of the day, and women’s smoking rooms were added to hotels and other establishments, to prevent feminine encroachment on the men’s smoking rooms.
15. Backlash against tobacco use was widespread in the early 20th century
Tobacco consumption continued to rise during the first half of the 20th century. Opposition to smoking grew more fervent among numerous diverse groups. In Germany, during the 1920s and the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party condemned smoking as a wasteful expenditure. Hitler banned smoking in his presence, though he did not consider outlawing the practice. Like the armies of the Allies during the Second World War, the Wehrmacht issued cigarettes to soldiers and sailors as part of their rations. Advertising for cigarette companies during the first half of the 20th century became one of the first uses of celebrity endorsement. Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio appeared in print advertising for cigarettes. So did Lou Gehrig, who advertised Camel non-filtered cigarettes in magazine advertisements with the claim, “they don’t get your wind, and I can smoke as many as I please”.
Not all celebrities agreed with the use of their image to endorse smoking. Honus Wagner threatened to sue when a cigarette card appeared with his image, and succeeded with getting the card withdrawn. But Wagner, one of the original five members inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, did not oppose tobacco use, and both chewed tobacco and smoked cigars. He simply didn’t like cigarettes. The removal of the Wagner card contributed to it becoming one of the most valuable baseball cards to collectors. Actors appeared in advertisements endorsing cigarettes, both male and female, from the 1930s until cigarette advertising was banned in most countries. Even Santa Claus endorsed giving cigars and cigarettes as Christmas gifts. Despite the onslaught of advertising, a steady backlash, led by health professionals and researchers, warned the public of the hazards of smoking in the 20th century. The global tobacco industry fought back.
16. The Germans were the first to impose national restrictions against tobacco use
In the United States throughout its first century of existence as an independent nation, excise taxes on tobacco funded up to one-third of internal revenues. Similar taxes supported the governments of many of the nations of Europe, including the United Kingdom. Few government-imposed restrictions appeared regarding where tobacco could be consumed, other than age restrictions on the right to purchase. That changed in the 1930s and 1940s when Nazi Germany began to restrict tobacco use. The German government under the Nazis funded research into the harmful nature of tobacco use. They actively campaigned against smoking and urged the public to avoid tobacco consumption. Two papers published in Nazi Germany in 1943, reported the results of studies funded by the government. Both reported the link between tobacco and cancer.
The Nazi government was the first in the world to issue restrictions on smoking in public places. Smoking was banned on public transit systems. Health lectures presented to German troops encouraged them to quit smoking, or never start. The arguments were based on health issues. Despite the lectures, cigarettes were still rationed to troops as a morale booster. Restaurants and other businesses were required to create separate smoking areas. Advertising for tobacco products was limited. Taxes on finished tobacco products, those paid by the consumer, were increased, in part to discourage smoking. Nearly all of the measures taken by governments to discourage smoking late in the 20th century were originally imposed in Nazi Germany. Measures to reduce smoking were unsuccessful. Largely as a backlash against the Nazi era, modern Germany has some of the least stringent anti-tobacco measures in the world today.
In the 1950s, throughout the world, smoking was unrestricted and ubiquitous. People smoked wherever they wished, in grocery stores, in hospitals, in movie theaters, on planes and trains, in college classrooms and lecture halls. Every professional sports team in America’s four major sports, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, had an official cigarette sponsor. Cigarette companies sponsored motor sports as well. When flying on airlines, a small packet of complimentary cigarettes came with meals. Television performers smoked, both in character and out, and advertised the brands which sponsored their programs. News broadcasters smoked on the air. The location of ashtrays was an important consideration when evaluating a new automobile. Cigars and pipes still had their loyal fans, as did chewing tobacco and snuff, but cigarettes dominated tobacco consumption around the globe. Tobacco remained a major product of international trade in the post-war era.
Ominous rumblings from several governments and international health organizations led the tobacco industry to begin aggressively advertising “healthy” cigarettes. Chief among them were the filters which tipped king-size cigarettes. In the 1950s filtered cigarettes outsold unfiltered versions for the first time. Cigarette companies issued competing claims that their filters allowed full flavor while removing the harsher elements of smoke. In Britain, an estimated 81% of men smoked cigarettes (and 39% of women), and filtered cigarettes were marketed more towards the latter. During the decade the British Royal College of Physicians began collating the data connecting cigarettes to health problems, and by the end of the decade, they had enough to move toward a ban on cigarette advertising. They aimed their first volley against big tobacco at television advertising. In America, similar movements gained ground.
18. World governments began to move against tobacco use in the 1960s
In 1964 Luther Terry, then Surgeon General of the United States, released the results of an in-depth study on the health effects of smoking tobacco. The report found, unequivocally, that cigarettes were linked to cancers, heart disease, and other health issues. Supporting studies came shortly thereafter, from European and Asian countries, as well as academic institutions in the United States. The US government began what became a decades-long effort to curb consumption of tobacco. The first such step was the issuing of health warnings on cigarette packs. In 1967, the government, through the Federal Communications Commission, required television broadcasters to air one anti-smoking Public Service Announcement (PSA) for every three cigarette ads broadcast. The extensive advertising for cigarettes on television and radio was targeted next. On April 1, 1970, the United States followed Britain’s lead and banned all advertising for cigarettes on television.
When President Nixon signed the act that day it was scheduled to take effect on January 2, 1971. The date was set so that broadcasters and advertisers could use the preceding New Years Day, a big sports day, to air the advertisements already bought and paid for. Such was the influence of the tobacco lobby in the United States. Despite being banned from television, cigarette advertising continued in magazines, newspapers, billboards, and other media, with many of the advertisers continuing the campaigns introduced on television. Such campaigns included the Marlboro Man, I’d rather fight than switch (Tareyton); You’ve come a long way baby (Virginia Slims, aimed at women) and many others. The television ban initiated the start of a long and continuing decline of smokers in the United States. In 1965 about 42% of the adult population smoked cigarettes. By 2017, it was less than 17%.
19. Bans on other forms of tobacco advertising followed
For many years tobacco advertisers evaded the ban on television by sponsoring televised events, thus ensuring their logos and product names continued to appear on television. Automobile racing, including NASCAR, Indy Cars, Formula 1, and sports car racing, all had a heavy presence of tobacco sponsorship. NASCAR’s annual championship trophy, the Winston Cup, was named for a brand of cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds. A major horse race held in the fall of each year, as part of the Fall Championship Series, was the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap, sponsored by Philip Morris USA. Another Marlboro Cup was awarded to the winner of an international soccer tournament, again sponsored by Philip Morris. Though banned from producing and broadcasting cigarette commercials on television, tobacco companies were successful in keeping their products visible on the medium.
Further crackdowns on tobacco advertising ensued, and as the 21st century began tobacco sponsored sporting events faded away. Advertising in print and on billboards followed. In response, the tobacco companies concentrated their efforts on marketing their products in emerging countries in Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Those efforts increased as local governments in Europe, the United States, Canada, and South America enacted legislation and ordinances further restricting where smoking was allowed. Nonetheless, tobacco production remained a big business worldwide. In the early 21st century, China leads the world in tobacco production, with over 2.2 million tons per annum. The United States, by comparison, produces 241,000 tons, yet still ranks fourth among tobacco-producing nations. Tobacco remains a labor-intensive, ecologically harmful, dangerous business for its cultivators and curers. Yet in many emerging countries it is an important part of the national economy.
20. Tobacco continues to shape world trade and economies today
Tobacco first came to Europe as a result of the voyages of Christopher Columbus. It soon became a leading export from the European colonies of the New World to their mother countries in the old. From there it became a trade item with the Arab world, Asian countries, the islands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, until it was ubiquitous worldwide. Great fortunes were made from its cultivation and production. Its production contributed to the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to the divisions which led to the American Civil War, and to the European Scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Yet it has done some good as well. In 1924 James Buchanan Duke endowed Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, with $40 million of his tobacco-enhanced wealth. The school president renamed the institution Duke University, in tribute to James Duke’s father, Washington Duke.
Ironically, Duke University is home to one of the world’s leading cancer research centers. And that sums up tobacco and its impact on shaping the modern world. It has enriched thousands, and destroyed millions. It built fortunes for planters, producers, manufacturers, shippers, and retailers, as well as advertisers. The Marlboro brand, one of the most recognizable logos in the world, was worth over $30 billion by the onset of the 21st century. All of the major American tobacco companies have diversified into other industries, and both R. J. Reynolds and American Tobacco dropped the word “tobacco” from their names, with American Tobacco becoming American Brands. Yet all continue to aggressively market their tobacco products, and though smoking’s popularity in the United States has dwindled, cigarettes and other tobacco products continue to expand their markets globally.
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