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As Washington Duke told the story, years later, when he was old and rich: “When the war was over, I found myself at Newbern, after being released from Libby prison with only a five dollar Confederate note, sold that to a Federal soldier for fifty cents, and walked home…. I said to my boys, when I got back home, ‘The war is over.  For people who will do their duty and stick to their business, there never was a better opportunity in the world to make their fortunes.'”

When Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman at Durham Station in 1865, it was the end of the Civil War in the Carolinas.  The restless soldiers had little to do during the nine days of negotiations, so they broke into a local tobacco “factory” owned by John Green and made off with the best weed any of them had ever smoked.  It wasn’t long before orders started pouring in from the ex soldiers up North.

Green cranked up production, adopting the name “Bull Durham” after a picture of a jar of the popular Coleman’s mustard, manufactured in Durham, England.  The demand for Durham tobacco prompted Washington Duke and his sons to get into the business.  In addition to the addictive nature of nicotine, two significant events favored the phenomenal growth of the business– the accidental discovery of a new method of tobacco curing in 1839, and the invention of the cigarette rolling machine in 1881.

The story goes that in the summer of 1839, an eighteen year-old slave, a blacksmith by the name of Stephen fell asleep while he was tending the fire in a tobacco curing barn. When he woke up and realized the fire was nearly out, he dashed to his smithy and got a supply of charcoal which he dumped on the fire.  The burst of heat turned the tobacco leaves yellow instead of brown, and seemed to improve the flavor. Bright leaf tobacco was born.

Experiments with flue-curing the leaves compounded the significance of Stephen’s  discovery, altering the chemistry of the tobacco from alkaline to slightly acidic.  This subtle change made the tobacco milder, allowing smokers to inhale for the first time.  Nicotine takes seven seconds to hit the brain once it reaches the bloodstream.

Tobacco farming was a laborious, risky business, and Washington Duke realized that the profits would be in the end product. In the early years, the business was snuff, plug tobacco, pipe tobacco.  The patriarch spent much of his life at the old homestead, processing chewing tobacco and labeling it “Pro Bono Publico,” for the Public Good.  He finally moved to Durham when his eldest son, Brodie, started his own factory in town, taking advantage of the train station and the tobacco market.

The youngest son was the entrepreneurial genius of the family. By 1900, cigarettes were only 2 % of the tobacco market.  They were deemed a curiosity for the urban poor, who could not afford more appropriate forms of the leaf.  James Buchanan (Buck) Duke, led a radical transformation of the business that would turn his family’s modest beginnings into an immense fortune, changing Durham and the rest of the world in the process.

The cigarette business was limited by the time-consuming nature of hand rolling the product.  When James Bonsack, a Virginia inventor, introduced a rolling machine, Buck Duke immediately saw its potential.  It would churn out 200 cigarettes a minute, as many as a skilled roller could do in an hour.  Although it was not a reliable machine, Duke saw its potential and locked in long-term, favorable contracts with its inventor.

The mechanization led to overcapacity, and “Buck” Duke saw that the solution involved aggressive solicitation of new smokers.  He committed his company to efficient production lines, massive marketing and modern advertising.  Promotion would drive consumption.

His marketing campaigns centered on premiums, coupons and collecting cards at first, but he soon branched into nationwide advertising campaigns that stamped his brands into the impressionable brains of his target audience– young men and women.

He single-handedly turned the tobacco traditions on their head, using consolidation to gain control over markets and production, eventually forcing his competitors to join him in the consortium named the American Tobacco Company.

In 1924, James Buchanan Duke decided to cement the family legacy by endowing a local divinity school called Trinity College with an endowment of $40 million dollars.  Trinity was promptly renamed Duke University.  Its Medical School opened in 1930.  Ironically, perhaps, given the business of its benefactor, Duke Medical Center is world-renowned, a major employer in the City of Durham.  The weed that nobody needed had spread from the little backwater of Durham all over the world.

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