Life is a smoke! -- If this be true,
Tobacco may have made the smoker carefree, but it certainly was responsible for many a wrinkle on the brow of a planter in Virginia. Tobacco was a finicky crop which required a large work force, an experienced overseer with excellent judgment, a sizable acreage and a certain amount of plain good luck.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, many small farmers successfully raised an acre or two of tobacco every season to sell for goods they could not grow or manufacture themselves. Most of the tobacco sold in England, however, was produced by plantation owners who learned the skill of cropmaster at their fathers' knees. These planters relied on the unskilled labor of indentured servants or slaves for the bulk of cultivation and production tasks.
One third of the year was consumed from the time the tobacco seed was planted until the cured leaves were prized (pressed) into hogshead barrels. However, since tobacco grew best in previously uncultivated soils, land-clearing often took up most of the rest of the year.
The preparation of seedbeds began in January or February; for each acre of tobacco ultimately to be cultivated, 40 square yards of seedbed were required. The sites of seedbeds were chosen, cleared, burned and hoed. The tiny tobacco seeds were sown before the middle of March, often mixed with sand to make distribution more equal. The beds were raked, then covered with pine boughs to protect the emerging plants. After about a month, the fragile seedlings were thinned to about four inches apart.
If the seedlings survived inclement weather and ravages of the tobacco flea beetle, the planter would be ready to transplant his tobacco to prepared fields in May. Knee-high hills were made every three or four feet. This task was considered the most arduous one in the tobacco cultivation process; an experienced adult could prepare no more than five hundred hills a day. After hilling, the planter waited until a rain softened the soil in the fields and seedbeds before transplanting the tobacco plants to their final location. Even with the best of care and weather, not all of the plants would survive; often hills were replanted more than once before a plant took.
Until the plant reached knee-high, weekly cultivation was necessary, to deter both weeds and cutworms. The work was done both with a hoe and by hand, the hills around the tobacco being reformed at the same time.
About two months after the tobacco was transplanted, a series of steps began to ensure large leaves of high quality. First, the two to four leaves growing closest to the ground were removed in a process referred to as "priming." At the same time, the plants were "topped." This step, which involved removing a small bunch of compact leaves which formed at the top of the plant, meant that the tobacco would not waste its energy developing flowers and seeds.
After topping, the plant stood between three and four feet tall. More leaves would be removed, depending on the fertility of the soil, the variety of tobacco and the season when the plants were topped. At first, the settlers concentrated on quantity rather than quality, but experience with the market coupled with regulations eventually dictated that less of a better product was produced.
After a plant was topped, it tended to develop suckers, shoots that emerge where the leaf joins with the stem. These suckers were carefully removed by the plantation work force as well. If this weekly process were not performed, smaller leaves would result.
Throughout its growth, tobacco was subject to the attack of numerous diseases and insects. Of all the pests in the tobacco field, the most feared was the horn worm, the same creature that attacks tomato plants. Usually there were two periods in the summer when the worms, which could grow to the size of a man's finger, were at their worst. A plague of worms could destroy a crop in less than a week; planters learned to inspect each tobacco plant daily. Worms were picked off and crushed underfoot.
The tobacco plants, standing six to nine feet high, were mature and ready to harvest by late August or early September. Even if the planter had good weather and had avoided destruction by pests and diseases, his crop was still in danger. If the plant were harvested before it was fully mature or when its peak season had passed, it would be worth far less. On the other hand, if the tobacco stayed too long in the field, there was the risk of a frost destroying the entire crop. One of the skills of a Virginia cropmaster was the ability to judge just when the tobacco should be harvested. An experienced planter would look at color (a yellowish green), texture (thick, rough and downy) and pliancy (a leaf that broke when it was folded between one's fingers).
Since the plants ripened at different times, there were numerous trips to the field during harvest time. Plants were cut with a sharp knife between the bottom leaves and the ground. If the weather were favorable, the tobacco was left on the ground three or four hours to wilt. This resulted in a heavier, moister leaf which brought a higher price.
In the first few years of tobacco cultivation, the plants were simply covered with hay and left in the field to cure or "sweat." This method was abandoned after 1618, when regulations prohibited the use of potential animal fodder for such purposes. In addition, a better method of curing tobacco had been developed; the wilted leaves were hung on lines or sticks, at first outside on fence rails. Tobacco barns for housing the crop were in use by the 1620's.
During the curing period, which lasted between four and six weeks, the color of the tobacco changed from a greenish yellow to a light tan. Mold was a danger during this time. Once again, a planter relied on his experience to know when the tobacco was ready to removed from the sticks on which it hung, a process known as "striking."
At last, when the tobacco was ready, and during a period of damp weather, workers struck the tobacco and laid the leaves on the floor of the tobacco barn to sweat for a week or two. Logs could be used to press the tobacco and increase its temperature, but the heat might become too intense and mold spoil the crop.
After sweating, the next step was sorting. Ideally, all the tobacco should be in a condition described by cropmasters as "in case." This meant that the tobacco had absorbed just the right amount of moisture; it could be stretched like leather and was glossy and moist. If tobacco were too damp, it would rot in transit; if too dry, it would crumble and be unsalable.
Although in the early years at Jamestown the settlers paid little heed to quality control, this attitude soon changed due to both the market and to regulations. Eventually, the settlers began to separate the tobacco into units of equal quality. The leaves were tied together in hands, bunches of five to 14. The hands were returned to platforms to sweat. When they were once again in case, inspection of the crop could take place and the final processing for export begin.
At first, preparation for shipping was very simple: the tobacco leaves were twisted and rolled, then spun into rope, which was wound into balls weighing as much as a hundred pounds. These balls, protected in canvas or barrels, would be shipped to England. Although the export of bulk tobacco was not outlawed until 1730, a large barrel called a "hogshead" soon became the favored container throughout the colonial period. Although its capacity varied slightly, governed by the regulations of the day, the average weight of the tobacco stored in a hogshead barrel was about a thousand pounds.
These barrels were transported in a variety of ways to the ships on which they would be carried to England. At first, captains of merchant vessels simply traveled from one plantation dock to the next, loading up with barrels of tobacco as they moved along the river.
Despite its drawbacks as a cash crop, tobacco cultivation had a number of advantages for both the wealthy plantation owner and the ordinary farmer. As David O. Percy points out in his The Production of Tobacco Along the Colonial Potomac, tobacco was grown:
". . . because no other colonial crop made such efficient use of cleared lands, provided as great a return for the labor, and could be as easily marketed."
Tobacco had other advantages. Its cultivation rapidly depleted the soil of nutrients. Although this may seem to be a strike against it, early settlers quickly discovered that virgin Virginia soil was too rich for successful harvest of traditional European crops, especially cereals. Tobacco broke down the fields and made food crops more productive.
There was a ready market for tobacco in England. Unlike many crops, tobacco was a good traveler, and, barring leakage of the ship or bursting of the hogsheads, would usually arrive in fine condition even after weeks or months at sea.
Another advantage of cultivating tobacco was, although the crop was labor intensive, the labor need not be skilled. Unlike glassblowing or flax and silk cultivation, the tasks associated with tobacco were simple and could be quickly mastered by children or adults.
Of course, tobacco had its disadvantages, too. Weather, disease and pests could all too easily spoil a crop. In addition, it was necessary to have an experienced planter on the scene to supervise the other workers and to make crucial decisions all through the growing and curing processes.
Labor shortage was another concern for the planter in the seventeenth century. This problem was initially resolved by the importation of European indentured servants, who either paid their passages or served prison sentences as "rented slaves." This institution would continue until the eve of the American Revolution. Tobacco was also tended by enslaved Africans, who were forcibly brought in significant numbers to Virginia starting in 1619.
The need for fertile soil on which to grow the year's crop required that the planter own large tracts of land, which had to be arduously cleared and prepared as field. Although the tobacco's depleting effect on the soil was at first considered an asset, all too soon the planters were left with land which was virtually useless for anything but grazing and which would take many years to regain its lost fertility.
Another problem with tobacco was that profit from it was so dependent on a foreign market. Prices fluctuated dramatically throughout the seventeenth century. Planters tried to control the market by limiting production and export, but they were largely at the mercy of their factors, the middlemen on the other side of the Atlantic. There were many flaws built into this system, from bad relationships between the planter and the factor to misunderstandings about how the profits were to be used. Perhaps the most insidious problem with this system was the inevitable indebtedness which the planter incurred. There seemed to never be enough money to make annual purchases and planters quickly ended up with heavy debts which mounted year by year.
Tobacco was and is a controversial crop. For Virginians in the seventeenth century, however, James I's "noxious weed" had much to recommend it. The Spanish seeds which John Rolfe brought to the colony would assure its economic success and result in a unique society. The legacy of tobacco and the culture it fosters remains with us even today. As an 18th-century poet observed:
"Yet crowds remain, who still its worth proclaim, While some for pleasure smoke, and some for fame."
Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, editors. The Reverend John Clayton: The Parson with a Scientific Mind. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1965.
Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.
C. T. Advice How to Plant Tobacco in England. London, N. Okes, 1615; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.
Dickson, Sarah Augusta. Panacea or Precious Bane: Tobacco in Sixteenth Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library, 1954.
Herndon, Melvin. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia: "The Sovereign Remedy." Williamsburg, Virginia: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1957.
Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Mackinzie, Compton. Sublime Tobacco. Gloucester, England: Allan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1957; reprint, 1984.
Middleton, Arthur. Tobacco Coast. Newport News, Virginia: Mariners' Museum, 1953.
Percy, David O. The Production of Tobacco Along the Colonial Potomac. Accokeek, Maryland: Accokeek Foundation, 1979.
Robert, Joseph C. The Story of Tobacco in America. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1949.
Lee Pelham Cotton
Last updated: August 14, 2019