The Early History of Cigarettes in America

The Early History of Cigarettes in America

By Richard Elliot

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, the self-titled “Captain General” of the Royal Navy John Hawkins and his crew introduced pipe smoking to England. Over the next few decades the demand for American leaf grew significantly. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with popularizing pipe-smoking at the Elizabeth I’s royal court not long after. A few decades later, the renown husband of Pocahontes John Rolfe brought a popular tobacco seed grown in Trinidad and South America 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 appeared in Virginia manufacturing snuff, a fine-ground tobacco consumed by being inhaled or as chewing tobacco.

By the mid-19th century, cigarettes were gaining in popularity in Europe. In 1843, the French tobacco monopoly, established by King Louis XIV in 1674 as a lease to a private group of entrepreneurs with great influence on French finances, court life, and the international tobacco economy between the Old World and New, began the manufacture of cigarettes, a form of tobacco consumption which up until then had a reputation as “beggars’ smokes” based upon 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 style cigarettes and soon this more sophisticated form of smoking was in vogue throughout the city of London.

In 1856, one young veteran of the war who observed the locals smoking tobacco wrapped in old newspaper, Robert Gloag opened the first cigarette factory in London selling a brand called Sweet Threes. A few years later, another Englishman, 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, Virginia, turning out brands with names like Full Dress, Sweet Caporal, Kinney’s Straight Cut and Sportsman’s Caporal using similar blends. 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, New York 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, Virginia trademarked the brand names Bon Ton, Napoleons, Dubec, The Pet, Opera Puffs for the national market, and sold a brand called Richmond Straight Cut No. 1 both at home and internationally.

Along with New York City, Richmond, and Rochester, the city of Baltimore, Maryland 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 major northern cities but their distribution capabilities were usually very limited. These operations typically 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, e.g. 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 5¢ for a box of 10.

Despite this rapid growth in sales of cigarettes in the 1870s, it should be remembered that they were still considered a novelty and were, for the most part, an urban phenomenon. Americans were still very attached to their pipes, cigars, and chew. Historically, northerners had preferred cigars while chew prevailed in the South. Pipe smoking was popular throughout the country although the preferred style of pipe was based largely on region. As early as the 1820s, John Quincy Adams had made Havanas (cigars) 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. Of the 348 tobacco factories listed by the 1860 census of Virginia and North Carolina, only six were making smoking tobacco used in cigarettes. The rest were making plug (chew) and twist (cigar) tobacco exclusively. In 1860, the entire amount of tobacco produced by those two states alone amounted to 83 million pounds.

By 1880, a young man in Durham, North Carolina, 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, and competing with 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. That same year, another young man named James Bonsack approached Duke with a cigarette-making machine he had invented. The young inventor had previously gone to the now “big four” companies but had been turned down because his machine was prone to break-downs, plus there was a belief that consumers would never accept a machine made cigarette.

Duke put top mechanics to work ironing out the bugs in the Bonsack machine and signed a deal with the inventor. During his first year of production using his team of imported hand-rollers, Duke turned out 9.8 million cigarettes. In contrast, using the Bonsack machines enabled him to produce 744 million cigarettes in 1888. 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 5¢ for a pack of 10. 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 and sent salesmen across the country and around the world. In 1890, the big four companies-W.S. Kimball, Allen & Ginter, Kinney Bros. and Goodwin-gave up the battle and joined with W.B. Duke to form The American Tobacco Company with a capitalization of $25 million and James “Buck” Duke as President.

The new American Tobacco Company came to be referred to simply as The Trust. 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 as well. 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 rival The Union Tobacco Company and 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 of cigarettes 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. 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-Dillon 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 tobacco, 76% of smoking tobacco, 97% of snuff, and 14% of cigar manufacturing. These numbers were impressive by any standard, but 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.

Richard Elliott is the president of The Cigarette Pack Collectors Association, as well as the editor of a quarterly newsletter about the hobby called “Brandstand”. A life-long collector, his interest in cigarette packs began at age 14 when his dad brought home a couple of “I Like Ike” packs during the presidential election campaign of 1956. The packs were given out free at Republican campaign offices around the country as were “Stevenson for President” packs by the Democrats. Today, those packs remain on display in his collection along with several thousand more dating back as far as the 1870s. If you would like to learn more about the club, you may contact Dick at: CPCA, 86 Plymouth Grove Drive, Kennebunk, ME 04043 or by email at:

The Early History of Cigarettes in America