Tobacco, one of the most widely used addictive substances in the world, is a plant native to the Americas and historically one of the half-dozen most important crops grown by American farmers. From 1617 to 1793 tobacco was the most valuable staple export from the English American mainland colonies and the United States. Until the 1960s, the United States not only grew but also manufactured and exported more tobacco than any other country.
Since 1964 conclusive epidemiological evidence of the deadly effects of tobacco consumption has led to a sharp decline in official support for producers and manufacturers of tobacco, in spite of its indisputably large contribution to the agricultural, fiscal, manufacturing, and exporting sectors of the economy.
By 1617 John Rolfe's experiments with Spanish tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) had provided the English settlement in Virginia with a staple export of high value in proportion to the cost of its transportation across the Atlantic. As a result tobacco served as the chief incentive for the subsequent demographic and economic growth of the colonial Chesapeake. English merchants supplied colonists with manufactured goods and bound labor and took their profits primarily from the return cargoes of tobacco. Before the last quarter of the seventeenth century the bond servants who grew tobacco came primarily from the British Isles, but thereafter the laborers were principally black slaves from the West Indies and Africa. These laborers, settled on small plantations or quarters, swelled the population of the Chesapeake colonies from a few hundred in 1618 to perhaps thirty-five thousand by 1675 and well over half a million by 1776. The quantity of tobacco shipped to Great Britain rose from twenty thousand pounds in 1617 to over 40 million pounds in 1727, and even as the agricultural economy became diversified after 1700, colonists continued to produce ever larger crops of tobacco. Tobacco inspection systems enacted by Virginia in 1730 and by Maryland in 1747 improved the quality of Chesapeake tobacco exported to Britain and from there to the Continent. The huge crops (averaging 100 million pounds in the early 1770s) and low price of Chesapeake tobacco overwhelmed its European competitors. By 1775, not only England but much of Europe depended on the Chesapeake for tobacco.
The American and French revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars temporarily curtailed the European demand for Chesapeake tobacco. But a growing domestic market in the United States and a reviving European market after 1815 consumed ever larger quantities of tobacco, now extensively grown in North Carolina as well as in the new states of the Mississippi valley. Between the late eighteenth century and 1860, moreover, slave labor predominated in both the cultivation of tobacco and its manufacture into plugs and twists in southern factories. In the North, however, the manufacture of snuff and cigars remained largely the operation of whites. By 1860 the United States produced more than twice as much tobacco as in 1775, though a good half of it was now consumed domestically.
From the time of Elizabeth I until 1700, Europeans characteristically consumed tobacco in small-bowled clay pipes with long stems. In the eighteenth century the taking of snuff, known to the Indians but made fashionable by the French, largely displaced smoking among the aristocracy and the more cultivated city folk of Britain and Europe. In America the colonists, too, smoked clay pipes, but in the early nineteenth century the “chaw” became popular. The proclivities of American tobacco-chewers, whose amber streams seemed frequently to miss whatever cuspidor was available, often disgusted foreign visitors.
The Civil War gave a boost to the consumption of tobacco in the portable forms of cigars and the relatively new cigarettes. Within a decade after Appomattox, American production of tobacco had nearly doubled again, led by increased demand for smoking tobacco and cigarettes, at that time still made by hand. With slavery at an end, small independent farmers, mostly white, and tenant farmers, both black and white, grew most of the tobacco; their families assisted in cultivation. New centers for the manufacture of smoking tobacco and cigarettes followed the culture of bright leaf, flue-cured tobacco to Durham and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. There, in the next quarter century, James Buchanan Duke and R. J. Reynolds used aggressive advertising, the most efficient machinery available, and big-business techniques for eliminating competition to create multimillion-dollar corporations, among the largest and most profitable in the United States. Per capita consumption of chewing tobacco declined after 1890. By the 1920s annual per capita consumption of cigarettes in the United States approached one thousand, and advertisers began targeting women. The cigarette age had arrived.
Between 1929 and 1989, government, science, and technology transformed tobacco culture into agribusiness by legislation, invention, and mechanization. Tobacco farmers prospered from government price support programs from 1934 through 1981, but the advent in 1969 of a successful tobacco harvesting machine for bright leaf tobacco spelled the end of tobacco farming as a labor-intensive, family-farm operation. By the early 1980s almost 50 percent of flue-cured tobacco was harvested by machine. Burley tobacco (grown chiefly in Kentucky and Tennessee) enjoyed fewer economies of scale and mechanization, but high leaf yields kept it competitive for cigarette blending.
Between 1930 and 1979 per capita consumption of cigarettes in the United States almost tripled, increasing from 972 to 2,775. The 1930s also produced the first widely noted scientific studies associating smoking “with a definite impairment of longevity,” but these early warnings left tobacco manufacturers free to market their cigarettes (albeit with cost-saving filter tips) to a largely uninformed public. Ignorance ended on January 11, 1964, when Luther L. Terry, surgeon general of the United States, issued the report of a blue-ribbon advisory committee, which condemned cigarette smoking “in such clear and concise language that it could not be misunderstood.” Every surgeon general since Terry has campaigned against smoking. Governments in most of the industrialized nations adopted a variety of policies to curtail or prohibit cigarette smoking. In response to the worldwide decline in smoking among the better educated, the multinational manufacturers of cigarettes skillfully targeted advertising campaigns at specific groups among less well-educated Americans and increased exports of cigarettes to less-developed nations.
p>Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1985); Joseph C. Robert, The Story of Tobacco in America (1949).
John M. Hemphill II
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Tobacco. (2013). The History Channel website. Retrieved 5:27, December 11, 2013, from http://www.history.com/topics/tobacco.
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Tobacco. The History Channel website. 2013. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/tobacco. Accessed Dec 11, 2013.