Chewing tobacco was probably the earliest form of tobacco used in the Americas. In its simplest form, it requires no special preparation, although some Native Americans did mix lime with the tobacco to increase its effect. Tobacco chewing was especially prevalent in the vicinity of the Andes Mountains where coca leaf was also chewed.
When Europeans arrived in America, they learned the use of tobacco from Native Americans and took the habit back to Europe. As the tobacco habit spread throughout the world, few people practiced tobacco chewing, but one major exception was, for example, sailors who could not safely smoke onboard ship. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how much tobacco was consumed by chewing because prior to the 1800s most tobacco was manufactured in the same form, regardless of how it was consumed.
In most countries, excluding Scandinavia and the United States, tobacco chewers represented a small minority of the population. In particular, tobacco chewing was the preferred method of tobacco consumption in Sweden well into the twentieth century. Not until the 1920s did oral consumption of tobacco begin to decline. Moreover, not until 1951 did cigarettes constitute 50 percent of tobacco's consumption in Sweden, ten years after this occurred in the United States.
During the nineteenth century, tobacco chewing was particularly prevalent in the United States. Exactly why this happened is not certain, but it became widespread and, in 1880, 55 percent of tobacco produced in the country was plug tobacco, a form of chewing tobacco. While plug tobacco's percentage of total production fell after 1880, gross production continued to rise until 1917, when it reached its all-time peak of 206 million pounds.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, chewing tobacco usage declined in the United States. Formerly, the population had been largely rural and spent much time outdoors. As the country became more urban and spent more time indoors, tobacco chewing and the accompanying expectoration came to be looked upon as unsanitary and unseemly. Only in the 1980s was this trend halted, as increasing restrictions on smoking in public caused some smokers to turn to various forms of chew when unable to smoke.
Chewing tobacco in the United States was for a long time associated with baseball players. During ballgames, the player with the huge chaw in his mouth and a package of chew in his back pocket was an image frequently seen in photographs and on television. By the 1990s, pressure from health advocates resulted in the banning of this practice.
Plug and Twist
In its earliest form, chewing tobacco was just a leaf torn from the plant. The need to preserve, flavor, and then transport the tobacco led to different forms of processing. One of the earliest ways that tobacco was prepared was in the form of a twist, by which leaves were twisted together to form a rope of tobacco that could be cut into smaller lengths for ease of transporting. The user would cut off as much as he needed for chewing, smoking, or grinding into snuff. The manufacture of twist tobacco was simple and was mechanized prior to 1667, when an illustration of the process was published.
Plug tobacco was said to originate with early settlers in Kentucky or Missouri who placed cut tobacco, sweetened with honey, in holes drilled in green maple or hickory logs. Wooden plugs driven into the holes compressed the tobacco, and the drying wood absorbed the excess moisture from the tobacco. The log was then split, and the plugs of tobacco could then be consumed.
By the early 1800s, the process of producing plug tobacco had been somewhat mechanized. Small hand- or animal-powered screw presses were used to create the plug until around 1860 when steam-powered hydraulic presses came into use. These presses worked faster and were more efficient at equalizing the moisture level within the plugs; consequently, the plugs did not spoil as readily.
As plug tobacco became increasingly popular, two basic types evolved. Navy plug, so called because it was originally produced for sale to the U.S. Navy, was made with heavily sweetened Burley tobacco with a Bright tobacco wrapper leaf. The second variety, flat plug, was produced entirely with Bright tobacco, which did not absorb as much sweetening as the Burley tobacco used in navy plug.
Much of the country, especially the northern states, preferred very sweet chew. This put producers using Burley tobacco at an advantage because of its greater ability to absorb flavoring. The R.J. Reynolds Company, a major producer of flat plug, looking for a way to compete with navy plug producers, pioneered the use of saccharine as a sweetener in chewing tobacco. Sweeter than sugar and, at the same time, cheaper per unit of sweetness, the additive enabled R.J. Reynolds to compete and, at the same time, decrease production costs.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as cigars increased in popularity in the United States, enterprising tobacconists developed a new form of chewing tobacco. At the time cigar scraps and clippings frequently were being bagged and sold as cheap smoking tobacco. Some of this tobacco was probably chew, but the tobacco was not widely used for chewing until someone thought to soak the scraps in sweetening. The Bloch Brothers Company of Wheeling, West Virginia, with its Mail Pouch brand, was among the earliest producers of this type of tobacco.
I n the mid-1890s James Duke, the president and founder of American Tobacco Company, expanded into the chewing tobacco market by acquiring plug and smoking tobacco firms such as the National Tobacco Works and the J.G. Butler Company. Most of the remaining large firms, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Liggett & Myers, were soon acquired as well. Duke then purposely sold plug at prices below cost to wear down his competitors.
The cost of competing in the "Plug Wars" drove many of Duke's major competitors, including Peter Lorillard & Company, to join the Tobacco Trust. In 1911 American Tobacco Company was dissolved by the federal government for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
The twentieth century saw the development of cigar-making machines, which did not yield the residue used for scrap tobacco. While some cigars continued to be made by hand, their number steadily decreased. At the same time, scrap tobacco increased in popularity. Price had been the original selling point, but increasingly, this form of tobacco came to be preferred. Therefore, producers began using fewer scraps and buying more leaf, to the extent that, eventually, scraps were no longer used. Today, this variety of chewing tobacco is known as loose-leaf chewing tobacco.
Fine-Cut and Long-Cut Tobaccos
Fine-cut and long-cut tobaccos, when used for chewing, are considered oral snuff. These same tobaccos are used for smoking, although tobacco used for chew is generally sweeter. In the United States their use has remained small but steady. The growth in chewing tobacco use in the 1980s in America was primarily in this category, and in Sweden fine-cut and long-cut tobaccos have long been the preferred types of chewing tobacco. Today, more than any other country, Sweden has a higher percentage of users who prefer this form of tobacco.
Chewing tobacco has existed for as long as people have used tobacco. As the restrictions on smoking in public places continue to be adopted, along with incessant warnings of the dangers of primary and secondhand smoke, perhaps reflecting on chewing tobacco's longevity will give smokers "something to chew on."
▌ JOSEPH PARKER
Brooks, Jerome E. The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco Through the Centuries. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1952.
Dew, Lee A. History of the Pinkerton Tobacco Company: The Flavor of America. Pinkerton Tobacco Company, 1994.
Robert, Joseph C. The Tobacco Kingdom: Plantation, Market, and Factory in Virginia and North Carolina, 1800–1860. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1938. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965.
——. The Story of Tobacco in America. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1949. Reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
Rogozinski, Jan. Smokeless Tobacco in the Western World, 1550–1950. New York: Praeger, 1990.
Tilley, Nannie M. The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860–1929. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1972.
——. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
plug a small, compressed cake of flavored tobacco usually cut into pieces for chewing.
snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.
hydraulic operated through the force of liquid, typically water or oil. For centuries, mill machinery was powered by hydraulic (water-operated) wheels.