When Christopher Columbus reached the West Indies in 1492, the natives greeted him with fruit, wooden spears and “certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance”. The Spanish sailors in Columbus’ crew appreciated the fruit but threw away the dried leaves not knowing what they were for. A few weeks later, while on a reconnaissance on the island of Cuba, two crewmen from the ship reported that they watched as natives wrapped the same type of dried leaves in maize and lit one end and inhaled the smoke from the other. Reportedly, one of the sailors tried a few puffs himself and soon became a confirmed smoker, probably the first European to do so.
Later explorers would learn that the new world was full of smokers and had been for hundreds of years. North American Indians prized tobacco and traded the valuable leaf regularly. While tobacco was usually smoked in simple pipes called “calumets”, Spanish explorers such as Cortez reported seeing Aztec and other Central American Indians smoking flavored reed “cigarettes” while the natives of Cuba reportedly rolled their leaf into cigars then as now. By the mid 16th century, Portuguese settlers in Brazil began cultivating their own tobacco for
export to Europe. In 1564, Captain John Hawkins and his crew introduced pipe smoking to England and over the next few decades the demand for American leaf grew significantly. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with popularizing pipe-smoking at the English royal court not long after. A few decades later, John Rolfe brought South American tobacco seed to the Jamestown Virginia settlement and raised the first crop of “tall tobacco” in what is now the U.S. By the 1730s, the first North American tobacco factories had appeared in Virginia manufacturing snuff
By the mid 19th century, cigarettes were gaining in popularity in Europe. In 1843, the French
Monopoly began the manufacture of cigarettes, a form of tobacco consumption which up until then had a reputation as “beggar’s’ smokes” based upon the cheap smokes made from discarded cigar scraps in neighboring Seville, Spain for hundreds of years. Meanwhile in England, soldiers returning from the Crimean War brought with them a taste for Turkish cigarettes and soon this more “sophisticated” form of smoking was in vogue throughout the city of London. In 1856, one young veteran named Robert Gloag opened the first cigarette factory in the city selling a brand called Sweet Threes. A few years later, another Englishman named Philip Morris started making customized hand-made cigarettes at his tobacco shop and it wasn’t long before the Bond Street novelty spread to Fifth Avenue.
Many of the very early cigarette factories in New York were owned and operated by Greek and Turkish immigrants. One such company was founded in 1868 by the Bedrossian Brothers who blended Virginia and Turkish tobacco into numerous brands with metropolitan sounding names such as Non Plus Ultra, Petite Canons, No Name 10s, Ladies, and Neapolitans. Seeing an opportunity in the emerging market for cigarettes, tobacco man F.S. Kinney began cigarette production in New York City as well as at a factory in Richmond, VA, turning out brands with names like Full Dress, Sweet Caporal, Kinney’s Straight Cut and Sportsman’s Caporal also using a blend of Turkish and Virginia leaf. Kinney’s chief competitor in the New York market was Goodwin & Co. which sold nationally advertised cigarettes with folksy sounding brand names such as Old Judge, Canvas Back, and Welcome.
During this same post-Civil War period, William S. Kimball’s Peerless Tobacco Works of Rochester, N.Y. managed to capture an ever increasing share of the U.S. cigarette market with their Vanity Fair, Fragrant Vanity Fair, Cloth of Gold, Three Kings, Old Gold and Orientals brands. Meanwhile, yet another tobacco manufacturer, Allen & Ginter of Richmond, VA trademarked the brand names Bon Ton, Napoleons, Dubec, The Pet, Opera Puffs for the national market and an sold a brand called Richmond Straight Cut No. 1 both at home and internationally.
Along with New York City, Richmond, VA, and Rochester, NY, the city of Baltimore, MD became a center for cigarette manufacture in the early years with the entry of The Marburg Tobacco Company and Felgner into the race. Marburg aimed at the so-called “carriage trade” with their Estrella, High Life, Melrose and Golden Age brands while Felgner offered their own line of urban-sophisticated smokes with Sublime, Principal, Perfect and Herbe de la Reine.
Combined, the Kinney, Allen & Ginter, Kimball, Goodwin, Marburg and Felgner firms became known as the “big six” of the cigarette industry by the 1870s as they gained control of 75% of national sales. There were, of course, hundreds of smaller cigarette firms operating out of back-room shops in most larger northern cities during this era but their distribution capabilities were usually very limited. These operations usually employed fewer than a dozen Greek, Turkish or Bulgar rollers and turned out specialty “oriental” brands such as Khedive, Sultana, or Monopole. Their beautifully packaged cigarettes often featured silver and gold foil inner wrappings and a variety of sizes, shapes and mouthpieces. The prices charged for these specialty brands reflected the upper-class urban market that they were aimed at. Turkish Elegantes from Bedrossian Brothers sold at $1.00 for 20 and Huppmann Imperiales cost $1.20 for 20 at time when most national brands were priced at .05 cents for a box of 10.
Despite this rapid growth in sales of cigarettes in the 1870’s, it should be remembered that they were still considered a novelty and were for the most part an urban phenomenon. Americans were still very much attached to their pipes, cigars and chew. Historically, northerners had preferred cigars while “the chew” prevailed in the South. Pipe smoking was popular throughout the country although the choice of pipe was largely regional. As early as the 1820’s, John Quincy Adams had made “Havanas” respectable in New England society and “brown rolls” eventually became so popular that the Boston city fathers set aside a special area known as the “Smoking Circle” on Boston Common just for the cigar smokers. Meanwhile, throughout the South in the West, “the chew” prevailed. Of the 348 tobacco factories listed by the 1860 census of Virginia and North Carolina, only six were making smoking tobacco. The rest were making plug and twist tobacco exclusively and the production figures in 1860 for those two states alone amounted to 83,000,000 pounds.
By 1880, a young man in Durham, NC with a long family background in the tobacco business had come to the conclusion that cigarettes represented the future of his industry. James Buchannan Duke had grown up working with his father and brothers at the W.Duke & Sons Tobacco Company in Durham turning out Duke of Durham and Pro Bono Publico smoking tobaccos which were competitors of W.T. Blackwell’s world-famous Bull Durham Tobacco. Young “Buck” Duke saw the battle with Blackwell as a lost cause and in 1881 set his sights on the emerging cigarette business importing 125 experienced hand-rollers and a factory manager from New York to manufacture Duke of Durham Cigarettes. In the same year, another young man named James Bonsack approached Duke with a cigarette-making machine which he had invented. The young inventor had previously gone to the “big four” companies but had been turned down because of the machine was prone to break-downs and there was a belief that consumers would never accept a machine made cigarette. Duke put his top mechanics to work ironing out the bugs in the Bonsack machine and then signed a deal with the inventor. During his first year of production, using his team of imported hand-rollers, Duke had turned out 9,800,000 cigarettes. In contrast, his factory was producing 744,000,000 cigarettes by 1888 using the Bonsack machines. Duke soon added Cyclone, Duke’s Best, Cameo, Pedro, Town Talk , Crosscut and Pin Head to his stable of brands, the latter emblazoned with the words “These Cigarettes are Manufactured on the Bonsack Machine”. By lowering his production costs, Buck Duke was able to lower his price to .05 cents for a pack of 10. This half the price of other major brands and the W.B. Duke Company soon had garnered a full 40% of the market. Gathering momentum, Duke stepped up the pace spending an unheard of $800,000 on print and billboard advertising in 1889. Salesmen were sent across the country and around the world. In 1890, the remaining “big four” companies , W.S. Kimball, Allen & Ginter, Kinney Bros. and Goodwin gave up the battle and joined W.B. Duke in forming The American Tobacco Company with a capitalization of $25,000,000 and James “Buck” Duke as President.
The new American Tobacco Company came to be referred to simply as “The Trust” and with Buck Duke at the helm, the firm proceeded to gain control of most of the cigarette production in the country along with much of the smoking tobacco and plug manufacturing. In true 19th
century industrial-baron style, Duke built a vertical empire which controlled leaf suppliers, warehouses, box and foil manufacturers, and distributors. He bullied retailers and jobbers with threats of reduced commissions and drove out competition with cut-throat price wars. In the 1890’s American Tobacco bought out plug makers National Tobacco Works, P. Lorillard, Marburg and Butler-Drummond, channeling all of these firms into a new company called Continental Tobacco. They also struck a deal in 1899 with The Union Tobacco Company which was a rival combine and in so doing brought aboard the brands of former competitors Liggett & Myers, W.T. Blackwell and The National Cigarette and Tobacco Company. Finally in the same year, American Tobacco purchased a two thirds interest in R.J. Reynolds Company.
One area of the cigarette industry which Duke had problems conquering was the network of small tobacconists who were still hand-rolling specialty brands in back-room shops of New York City. He did buy some of the larger of these firms including M. Melachrino, S, Anargyros, Monopole, and Schinasi Bros. bringing on board their expensive Melachrino, Murad, Helmar, Mogul, Natural, Egyptian Prettiest, Egyptian Straights and Egyptian Dieties all-Turkish brands. Duke also sold a line of cheaper “Turkish blend” smokes for the national market. This group included the Hassan Mecca and Fatima brands.
Eventually, the trust absorbed most of the other major tobacco companies in the country including Mayo and Wright & Patterson of Richmond, Hanes & Brown of Winston, Beck of Chicago, Scotten of Detroit, Bollman of San Francisco, Finzer of Louisville and Sorg of Middletown. By 1909, The American Tobacco trust controlled 86% of the national cigarette business, 85% of plug, 76% of smoking tobacco, 97% of snuff and 14% of cigar manufacture. The numbers were impressive by any standard the size of the American Tobacco empire also drew the attention of Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust busters” but that’s a story for another day. R. Elliott, editor. (Reprinted from Brandstand Spring 2009)
Tobacco & Americans Robert K Heimann, McGraw-Hill 1960
Goodbye To All That Harris Lewine McGraw Hill 1970