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Dr. G. Melvin Herndon oral history interview, March 27, 1974

Date: Mar. 27 1974 | Identifier: OH0018
Transcript of a lecture entitled “Clay and Fig, Snuffbox, Chaws, Stogie, Makings and Tailor-Made: The Impact of Changing Modes of Tobacco Consumption on Tobacco Culture” given by Dr. G. Melvin Herndon from the department of History at the University of Georgia. The second annual Tobacco History Symposium held at East Carolina University, March 27, 1974. Introduction to speaker by Fred Ragan. This is reel number two side one. more...

Dr. G. Melvin Herndon
Department of History at the University of Georgia
March 27, 1974

Fred Ragan:

Fred Ragan: To begin the second part of our morning program, without any intent of playing upon towns, as it may be, or trying to make a pun, our second speaker comes from that successful town across the river, Danville. [Laughter] Professor Herndon was born in Danville, received his education in various schools in Virginia, receiving his PhD at the University of Virginia. He’s been a visiting professor at the University of Virginia, is an associate professor at the University of Georgia. He’s written quite extensively on colonial history, tobacco in colonial Virginia, a number of articles in agricultural journals, the North Carolina Historical Review, and recently published William Tatham and the Culture of Tobacco. His topic today is a very interesting sounding one at any

rate: “Clay and Fig, Snuffbox, Chaws, Stogie, Makings and Tailor-Made: The Impact of Changing Modes of Tobacco Consumption on Tobacco Culture.” Professor Herndon.

G. Melvin Herndon:

G. Melvin Herndon: They ran me out of that successful town in 1951. I left Athens in somewhat of a hurry and when I finally arrived at the Atlanta airport, after fighting traffic for better than an hour, I rushed up to the information desk and asked the lady where a restroom was, and she thought I said “restaurant” and she replied, “If you want to sit down there’s one around the corner. [Laughter] If you don’t mind standing up there’s one in the main lobby.” Now I’ll try to enunciate a little more clearly to make myself perfectly clear, to coin an original phrase.

I have several themes, I think, the major one being the profound impact of the changing methods of tobacco consumption on the tobacco industry, and I’m going to sweep from the colonial period to the present. Nowhere is this theme more conspicuous than here in North Carolina, including its impact on numerous of her towns. In broader historical perspective--being a historian I thought I should throw this in--in many respects the changes in method of consumption symbolize the growth and development of the United States from a society that was ninety percent agrarian in the days following the Revolution to the urbanized, industrialized society of today, which includes, I might add, one of the first recorded incidents of streaking, [Laughter] which I shall document.

At the time of the American Revolution tobacco was an important commercial staple in only three colonies, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, with a total annual production of a little over 100,000,000 pounds. Tobacco production in some twenty states has now reached about 2,000,000,000 pounds annually. In 1775 all American tobacco tended to be classified as Orinoco by warehouse inspectors. Today there are I

believe twenty-six different types. The trend towards the development of distinct types of American tobacco was due to several factors: the spread of tobacco culture to new soil types, the inevitable hybridization, and the development of three distinct curing methods. The soils west of the mountains and north of the Mason Dixon Line simply did not and will not produce bright tobacco. Hybridization was at work long before selected plant breeding. Most of the types that existed by the Civil War era can be traced back to John Rolfe’s successful experimentation at Jamestown.

Throughout the colonial era, tobacco is air cured, though by the end of the period small open wood fires on the earthen floors of tobacco barns to drive out excessive moisture or to hasten the curing process were in use. When tobacco culture was carried into Tennessee and Kentucky, some farmers air cured their tobacco, some with open fires, and others used a combination of the two. Rather early in the nineteenth century the European export market began to show a preference for the smoky flavored leaf produced by curing with open wood fires. Fire curing soon became the most common method of curing in the Hopkinsville, Clarksville, Paducah, and Maysville area. By the time white burley emerged, domestic demand, which objected to the smoky flavor, caused a reversal to air curing in some areas.

Meanwhile back in the old Virginia, Carolina belt two developments were taking place which resulted in the emergence of the bright tobacco belt: the expansion of the tobacco culture into the light gray poor soils of the Piedmont and a third curing method. Objection to the smoky flavored leaf resulted in a switch to the use of charcoal. The story of the incident on the Slade farm in Caswell County, which produced a barn of bright tobacco, is a familiar story and need not be retold here. Although open charcoal

fires continued to be the most common method of curing bright tobacco until after the Civil War, flue curing systems were being developed and their use spread rapidly after the cessation of hostilities.

By the time of the American Revolution, then, there was only one type of tobacco, Orinoco. It had been consumed by the colonials primarily in two ways: It was smoked in clay pipes with a fig stem or ground up for snuff. Nor were Americans consuming a great deal of what they produced. In 1790 about seventy-eight percent of our total production was exported, the remaining twenty-two being consumed at home. By 1840 domestic consumption amounted to forty-one percent, fifty-five percent by 1860, sixty percent by 1900, and I believe today domestic consumption is better than seventy percent of our total production. The changing methods of consumption, then, had much to do with the expansion of tobacco as a staple from three colonies to some twenty states, the emergence of several distinct types of tobacco, and the tremendous increase in domestic consumption.

After the American Revolution there was a general switch to chewing as Americans smoked less and consumed less snuff per capita. Chewing during the colonial period had been restricted to a small number of working men and sailors, but it became the chief method of consuming tobacco during the first half of the nineteenth century and held that position until near the end of the nineteenth century. Placed in historical perspective, the switch to chewing represented in part a rejection, final and complete, of Europeans in general and the British in particular. Snuffing snuff up the nostrils in the proper manner and conspicuously displaying a beautiful and expensive snuff box and a silk handkerchief had become one of the symbols of Old World aristocracy. It might be

suggested that the snuffing habit also served as a deodorant in reverse. It dulled one’s senses against offensive odors.

The switch to chewing after the Revolution was but one part of the Americanization process then taking place. The habit was adopted to some extent by the British but never became popular at all on the Continent. Chewing was American. It represented freedom. It was symbolic of a great frontier society and the abandonment of Old World customs and traditions. It symbolized self sufficiency, restless energy of Americans on the move, the rise of the common man. It symbolized isolation and solitude, solitude because chomping was a substitute for chatter. It also came with the improved quality and mildness of tobacco as the culture spread to the virgin soils of the Western country and with the emergence of yellow tobacco from the near-depleted gray soils of Virginia and North Carolina. This suggests that chewing was also based on the development of a better way to bring out the best in tobacco. Above all, chewing was practical and convenient. Chewing did not necessitate a cessation of one’s activities to fill and light a pipe, and one’s spittoon was the whole outdoors. The Englishman Charles Mackay suggested that Americans made a mistake when the eagle was named our national emblem. Mackay thought it should have been the spittoon. [Laughter]

Growing popularity of the chew was especially important in the rather rapid expansion of tobacco in Tennessee and Kentucky. The darker tobaccos of this general area were popular for making the domestic chewing plug and twist as well as for export. The burley leaf contained far less sugar content than the tobacco grown east of the mountains and was thus capable of absorbing more of the additives such as licorice, rum, sugar, or honey that were used to produce a variety of tastes. Air-cured tobacco was

more absorptive than fire-cured, as the smoky open fires tended to close the pores of the tobacco leaf.

In 1839 American tobacco growers produced a record crop of some 200,000,000 pounds, with the states east of the mountains producing only slightly more than those to the west. Even though Virginia was still the leading producer in 1859 with twenty-eight percent of the total crop, Kentucky was close behind with a little better than twenty-seven. Tennessee was third, Maryland fourth, and North Carolina was fifth. The popularity of the burley leaf for chewing and the impact of the Civil War on Virginia enabled Kentucky to replace Virginia as the leading producer soon after the war. Missouri knocked North Carolina from sixth place.

It was also the chewing era that breathed some new life into the declining tobacco culture in Virginia and North Carolina during the early years of the nineteenth century. The chewing public came to demand that the quid be pleasing to the eye as well as to the taste. Manufacturers began searching for hogsheads of light-colored or yellow tobacco to use as wrappers for the dark, licorice-laden plugs. This bright tobacco leaf did not turn black when subjected to the juices and pressure necessary in the manufacture of the chewing plug. The superior prices paid for yellow tobacco resulted in increased efforts by growers in Virginia and North Carolina to produce such a leaf, and this was also the period when the [14:01 spangled] tobacco, the Maryland type, spread rapidly into Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Arkansas. The demand for a bright leaf, plus the growing objection to wood-smoked tobacco by Americans, also led to the more widespread use of charcoal and later flue curing systems in the Virginia, North Carolina

district. Bright tobacco then was emerging as a distinct type before it became popular as a smoking leaf.

Although chewing did not reach its peak in popularity until about 1890, another method of consuming tobacco began to develop some momentum as an accepted form of consumption in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the cigar. Actually, cigar consumption in America is now in its fourth phase. The cigar lingered on the fringe of smokers’ consciousness for about fifty years, from 1762 to 1810. It required another fifty years to become an acceptable way to use tobacco. For still another fifty years, 1860 to about 1907, the cigar was extremely popular, reaching its peak in per capita consumption about the time the chew began its decline. In 1907, leaf used in cigar manufacture still represented thirty percent of all the tobacco processed in the United States and sixty cents of every dollar spent on tobacco products went for cigars. Within three years, however, cigar consumption began its gradual decline and has now leveled off at about ten percent of the tobacco consumed in this country.

One story has it that Connecticut’s general, Israel Putnam, commander of American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill, started New England’s long cigar tradition when he brought three [16:01] loads of Havana cigars to Connecticut in 1762 during the French and Indian War. One story has it that during the war a British officer challenged Gen. Putnam to a duel. Putnam explained that he had never been very good at firing pistols and that since he was challenged he had the privilege of naming the weapon to be used, and he chose a powder keg. Putnam explained that they would both sit down by the powder keg and he would light a fuse and he who could sit the longest shall be declared the bravest. Putnam then lit the fuse, crossed his legs, and puffed away on his cigar.

When the fuse burned to within about an inch of the keg the British officer beat a hasty retreat. Only Gen. Putnam knew that the keg contained not powder but onions. [Laughter]

In 1824 a cigar with a president on the end of it was elected to the White House, [Laughter] suggesting the growing popularity of this regional smoke. President John Quincy Adams symbolized and spearheaded the sectional trend towards cigars. By the 1830s cigar consumption was apparently large enough to cause a small handful of New Englanders to grow their own tobacco to supply local cigar shops that had already emerged. In the 1830s and ’40s the after-dinner cigar established itself in French and English salons, smoking rooms were set aside at every gentleman’s club, and smoking cars were introduced on European railroads. This vogue exerted considerable influence in the United States, particularly in the more industrialized Northern states where America was becoming more citified and “civilized.”

The Mexican War and expansion into California and the gold strike of 1848 stimulated the popularity of cigars. To the Yankee mind this more exotic type of smoking became associated with power and wealth, urbanization and civilization, and the rise of a leisure class, perhaps even arrogance, as long pants replaced knee breeches and hose. In the decade 1849 to ’59 cigar leaf production increased 3,000 percent in Massachusetts, 7,000 percent in New York, 400 percent in Connecticut, 245 percent in Pennsylvania. Despite this tremendous percent of increase in production in the United States, it constituted less than ten percent of the total tobacco crop.

Prior to the Civil War, the cigar was essentially a Northern tradition and one of the many examples of growing sectionalism. Yankees grew virtually all of the American

cigar leaf, made most of the cigars, and consumed the majority of them. The cigar then was basically a Yankee smoke. Cigar smoking showed its steepest rate of climb during and just after the Civil War. The cigar puffing Gen. Grant accomplished for the nation of smokers in general what John Quincy Adams had done for the Yankees. The cigar as well as other regional tastes and customs became national standards. Indeed, it might be said that cigar smoke helped soothe tensions between former enemies and thus hastened the process of reunion. By 1880 cigars accounted for approximately thirty percent of all tobacco used and manufactured in the United States and maintained a rather stable level until early twentieth century. It was in the latter half of the nineteenth century that northern Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, began commercial production of the cigar leaf. Consequently, Southerners were now producing much of its cigar leaf, manufacturing its own cigars, and consuming them in sizeable quantities.

The tobacco industry in general, and especially in the South, had fully recovered by 1879, as total production for that year slightly exceeded the previous record crop of four hundred million pounds in 1859 and almost doubled that of 1869. The 1880s saw an important expansion of tobacco in North Carolina. Cotton was still king below the fall line, but the people there eyed with interest the more prosperous tobacco Piedmont. In the 1890s one warehouseman in the new eastern belt wrote this jingle: “Cotton was once king and produced Carolina’s Cracker, but now we have a better thing, the glorious bright tobacco.” I thought there were only Georgia Crackers. [Laughter]

The expansion of bright tobacco in eastern North Carolina was largely the result of the growing popularity of yet another way for Americans to consume this tobacco. Long before chewing and cigar consumption reached their peak of per capita

consumption, Americans began to return to the pipe in large numbers and to add the cigarette habit. Some individuals consumed tobacco all four ways, not all at the same time, as did some Central American Indians. There’s one story that this Central American Indian who was really a nicotine addict put snuff up his nose and packed shredded tobacco up each nostril to keep the snuff from falling out. Then he placed a big chew in each cheek and lit up a cigar. Now, I don’t remember whether this gentleman was sitting, standing, or in the prone position when he did all this. [Laughter]

Cigarette smoking was originally a Central American custom which had been observed by American traders who opened the Santa Fe Trail early in the nineteenth century. The cigarette arrived in New York in the 1850s from Seville, Spain, where cigarettes were a poor man’s byproduct of the lordly Havana cigar, scraps of discarded cigar butts wrapped in a scrap of paper. The cigarette supposedly spread to Europeans in general during the Crimean War of the 1850s as a result of contact with the Turks.

Maybe John R. Green at Durham Station had tried one of these discarded cigar butts wrapped in scrap paper when he decided to shred his stock of tobacco rather than working it up in plugs and twists. The story of the consumption of Green’s entire stock by some eighty thousand Confederate and Yankee troops being mustered out following the surrender at Appomattox is a classic and oft told tale. Post-Civil War days did indeed witness a rapid growth of the demand for smoking tobacco, tobacco shredded for consumption in pipes and for roll-your-own cigarettes. The peak of smoking tobacco consumption per capita came in 1910.

A distinctive American cigarette was not to emerge until 1913, but the groundwork had been laid much earlier. In the late 1850s a London merchant began

manufacturing hand-made cigarettes using Turkish tobacco. It was the exotic origin and aromatic flavor of the Turkish leaf that gave the cigarette its first appeal to Americans, while Americans were still in the throes of fascination with the cigar and still had its mouth full of quid. Manufacture of cigarettes in the United States began in New York in 1864 but the new fashion failed to gain many converts. Around 1880 several manufacturers in the Virginia-Carolina area began production of cigarettes as an experimental venture. The popular article at that time was still an exotic blended cigarette. It seemed that the word “Turkish” on the package, festooned with minarets, pyramids, and palm trees, was more important than what was in the cigarette.

The American cigarette as we know it did not evolve from the straight Turkish product or even from the Turkish-Virginia blend. The blend which finally won out was derived from smoking tobacco by way of the pipe and roll-your-own cigarettes: flue cured bright tobacco, then sweetened burley, then finally it was a mixture of both that first captured American taste buds. The American blended cigarette introduced in 1913 was more frequently half bright tobacco, from one- to two-fifths burley, and the remainder Turkish and Maryland tobaccos. The cigarette machine and the American blended cigarette had a tremendous impact on American tobacco consuming habits, or perhaps it should be vice versa, or versa vice.

By the end of World War I, cigarettes accounted for twenty-five percent of the tobacco consumed in the United States, cigars about twenty-five percent, while chewing and pipe smoking and snuff accounted for about fifty percent; however, by 1921 the cigarette became the leading form of tobacco consumption. The cigarette was originally a big-city novelty. As the felt hat replaced the dignified topper, the automobile replaced

the horse and buggy and stately carriage, the leisurely noon meal yielded to the quick lunch counter, the pipe and cigar was replaced by the cigarette. The cigarette meant that citification had come, that urban hurry-up had been institutionalized. The cigarette, light, mild, and quick, was tailor made for an urban civilization perpetually in motion and perpetually in need of relaxation.

The rapid growth of the popularity of the American cigarette was soon reflected in the production of various types of tobacco, especially in the bright belt. Production was not only stimulated in the old areas but the bright belt came to include South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and a small portion of Alabama. In 1922 authorities proclaimed bright tobacco the world’s leading tobacco crop, even though Kentucky remained momentarily the top tobacco producing state. Bright tobacco constituted one- third of the total U.S. production. By 1929 it had climbed to forty-nine percent and North Carolina had become the leading producer, marking about two-thirds of the total volume of bright tobacco. Today bright tobacco and burley growers produce about eighty percent of the total tobacco in the United States, fifty percent bright and thirty percent burley. North Carolina still produces two-thirds of the bright tobacco. Cigarette consumption probably saved the tobacco of southern Maryland from extinction. The growth of the burley trade and the fact that Maryland tobacco was rather neutral in flavor drastically reduced Maryland’s status as a tobacco producer. The inclusion of the Maryland type in the blended cigarette, because of its excellent burning qualities, proved to be very important. The decline of the chew in the United States and the growing popularity of burley and bright tobacco on the export market had an adverse effect from which the dark fire districts have never really recovered.

Beginning around 1960 bright tobacco production declined about two percent while burley increased by about the same amount. This change was due largely to the growing popularity of the filtered cigarette, which resulted in a slight increase in the proportion of burley and a slight decrease in the bright tobacco in the blend. What started as a health fad was spurred by the attenuation of American taste in general. Mildness became a desired attribute in beer, coffee and other edibles, as well as tobacco. The filter tip also contributed to the cigarette as a convenience article, eliminating loose tobacco ends and affording the smoker a firmer purchase between the lips. Filter tips were also less expensive than the tobacco they replaced and manufacturers fell over each other in an effort to produce another filter cigarette. Now I think about eighty percent of the cigarettes are filter tips.

Currently cigarette consumption is on the increase again. They account for more than eighty percent of the tobacco consumed in the United States, cigars approximately ten percent, and smoking and chewing a little less than ten percent, snuff about one and a half percent. Cigarettes account for almost ninety percent of the domestic consumption of burley and ninety-five percent of the bright tobacco usage. Bright tobacco types also account for over eighty percent of the total leaf exported by this country.

The story of changing popular methods of consuming tobacco is in essence the story of the expansion of tobacco culture in the United States and reflects in many ways the history of the growth and development of this country from a rural society to an urban industrialized nation. It explains when and how North Carolina rose from a relatively minor tobacco colony to the number one tobacco producer. Just as production of the bright leaf began shifting from Virginia to North Carolina, so did the manufacture of

tobacco. As I recall, there were about a dozen major tobacco manufacturing centers on the eve of the Civil War, only one of which was in North Carolina--the other twelve principal centers--Milton. By the end of the nineteenth century, Virginia, long the first state in the production of chewing tobacco, lost its leadership to North Carolina. The same thing happened in the cigarette industry by 1890. Durham and Winston-Salem clearly document these events.

Few factors have been more important in the growth of numerous towns in North Carolina than the shift in marketing centers, particularly since the Civil War. Until the post-war period, much of the North Carolina tobacco wound up on the Virginia markets. The transition to smoking tobacco and finally the cigarette changed all that. The great expansion of the bright belt in North Carolina saw the rise in growth of its own auction sales warehouses. Almost simultaneously during the 1870s, such warehouses were established in Durham, Reidsville, Winston, and Henderson. In 1880 some nine North Carolina markets handled all but 3,000,000 pounds of the state’s total crop. The establishment of tobacco warehouses came to symbolize civic progress. It was indeed with great pride that North Carolinians watched Winston-Salem supersede Danville in volume of sales in 1919. Two years later Danville dropped to third place behind Wilson. Numerous North Carolina towns grew and prospered, and some declined, as a result of the establishment of tobacco markets. There were sixty-four market towns in 1919. Today forty-eight North Carolina towns with some 237 tobacco warehouses owe varying degrees of prosperity to these tobacco warehouses.

Now one method of tobacco consumption was also associated with what has now become the most current fad on college and university campuses, streaking. As far as I know, one of the earliest recorded examples of streaking was done by President John Quincy Adams, who was an avid cigar smoker. Adams frequently dashed--not streaked--dashed down to the Potomac River when he was President, in the wee hours of the morning, to take a skinny dip. On one such occasion someone sneaked down and stole his clothes. The only possession not taken was the President’s half smoked cigar. This left him with no alternative but to streak back to the White House, which he did, with the cigar stub clenched firmly between his teeth, and as far as I

know President Adams is the only person to have streaked displaying two butts instead of one. [Laughter; Applause]

Fred Ragan: Professor Herndon will stand for questions from the audience, if you have any. [Pause] Seeing no questions this morning session will adjourn and will reconvene at 12:30 at the Ramada Inn for the luncheon. Thank you.


Transcriber: Deborah Mitchum

Date: October 12, 2010

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