Industrialization and Technology

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Industrialization and Technology

While tobacco has been consumed for thousands of years in numerous forms, from the mid-nineteenth century tobacco production changed radically with the industrialization of production and the advent of new industrial technologies. Industrial production of tobacco brought transformations in the social relations of production, a greater capitalization in tools and factories, and new challenges for tobacco manufacturers, leading to advertising on an unprecedented scale. While the impact of these changes was not uniform in all sectors of the tobacco industry, those entrepreneurs who controlled new technologies made them the foundations of global business empires, the offspring of which are still powerful in the twenty-first century.

Preindustrial Production

Before the mid-nineteenth century there was little mechanization of the tobacco production process. In much of the world, part of the production process continued to be done by farmers and retailers. Even in the 2000s, in places like Africa, most tobacco is home grown and never enters a factory. Before the mid-nineteenth century, when production facilities were separate from tobacco farms, they were small with little mechanization. Most production in the pre-1850 period was done in Europe and products were exported elsewhere in the world. Shredded smoking tobacco, or "shag," popular in England, required brief fermentation, stripping of the stem and midriffs, and little more than knives to chop the tobacco.

Production of other forms of tobacco was slightly more elaborate. Tobacco was spun into twists on a spinning wheel. The twists were then folded into large rolls and small pieces were cut off for consumers to smoke, chew, or snuff. Soft twisted rolls were often made with less expensive tobacco and used for smoking and chewing. Higher quality leaf was used to manufacture hard pressed "carottes" for nasal snuff. Tobacco rolls were fermented in sauces for as long as one week and then for one or two days put into carrot-shaped molds and pressed in iron presses that were operated by as many as many as fifteen men. From the 1720s these carottes were wrapped with string and consumers grated the carottes themselves. Pre-grated snuff, taken nasally in much of the world but orally in Scandinavian countries, was also produced in Europe and eventually in the United States using graters, rasps, and hand-turned wind and water mills. In much of Europe only the soft part of the leaf was used, thus requiring some labor to remove stems and midriffs. In Scotland and Ireland, the entire leaf was ground.

In the United States during the early 1820s and 1830s wooden tobacco presses were used to shape twists into more convenient plugs. Lower quality strips of tobacco were shaped into "lumps" and then wrapped in a higher quality leaf. Beginning in the 1840s the tobacco lump was also soaked in flavoring sauces such as honey or licorice. Thousands of small factories, usually located close to tobacco farmers in Virginia and North Carolina, supplied consumer demand. Not only did European tobacco products differ from those in the United States, factories were also significantly larger than those in America. Tobacco production was much more centralized, particularly in countries like France and Spain where government monopolies controlled tobacco production. In France, the most important tobacco manufacturing country in the world during the eighteenth century, there were only ten factories, but they averaged 1,000 workers each, making them the largest tobacco processing plants in the world at the time.

As a consequence of the size of these factories, the taste of manufactured tobacco in Europe was far more standardized than in the United States. Yet even in major production centers like Paris, Seville, Amsterdam, and Strasbourg, large factories were little more than groups of artisans and laborers under one roof using the same production processes as found in small shops. The greatest investments made to the tobacco industry in the preindustrial period were the factory building and the fermenting vats. Other than greater standardization of taste, there were few advantages in producing tobacco on larger and larger scales.

Early Industrial Production

From the mid-nineteenth century, new industrial technologies were added to these production processes. In Europe, snuff mills began to be powered by steam engines, though snuff was becoming less popular. From 1866, production of shag tobacco also began to be powered by steam engines, though in England retailers continued to play a significant part in mixing cut tobaccos to the tastes of consumers. In the United States, where plug tobacco was particularly popular for chewing, a hydraulic press was patented in 1858, replacing horse and manpower formerly used to press tobacco. After the initial expense of purchasing these new presses, manufacturers considerably reduced the cost of producing plugs. This was a result of three factors. First, tobacco plugs could be produced more quickly, cutting labor costs. Second, lessening the amount of heavy labor considerably, tobacco manufacturers replaced male tobacco workers with lower-paid women and children, further reducing labor costs. Third, though these new machines were expensive, their costs could be spread out over massive production runs. The more the machine ran and the more it produced, the greater economy of scale could be achieved. In other words, it was cheaper to manufacture more.

These new presses were adopted quickly in North American tobacco factories, giving their owners a distinct market advantage. In Canada, for example, the pioneer of the steam-powered tobacco press, William Macdonald, dominated the tobacco industry for the last half of the nineteenth century, though he was increasingly attacked for his reductions in prices and his use of child labor. This new speed through steam power was not without its problems. Packaging technologies did not keep up with production and not until 1885, when these difficulties were solved, could manufacturers take full advantage of the speed of these machines.

The Second Industrial Revolution

While the advent of steam significantly increased the speed of production of numerous tobacco products, changes during the last quarter of the nineteenth century played a more dramatic role. Skilled workers were replaced with technologically advanced production processes, often electrically powered, that increased the speed of production, integrated several manufacturing activities and reduced unit costs, creating consumer-rather than producer-oriented products. These new machines were often powered by electricity and integrated numerous processes into a continuous feed. The best example of this type of new mechanization is in cigarette production. Before the 1880s, cigarettes were rolled by skilled rollers, by this point frequently female, or alternatively by smokers themselves. Both methods had their problems. To use rollers meant that labor costs were high and cigarettes were expensive. As a result, they were seen as luxury goods or novelties. When cigarettes were rolled by the smoker they were frequently overly fragile and risked falling apart. In both cases they were viewed as somewhat effeminate with so much work and money being spent on such a short smoke.

The key change in cigarette production came in 1881 when Virginian James A. Bonsack patented the Bonsack Cigarette Machine. By the late 1880s when the most skilled cigarette rollers could make 3,000 cigarettes per day, one Bonsack Cigarette Machine could produce 120,000 cigarettes in the same amount of time. Additional machines were added to package cigarettes in a new, more solid box, and altogether unit costs were reduced from 80 cents to 8 cents per thousand cigarettes, with Bonsack achieving impressive economies of scale. At the same time, Bonsack bought the copyrights to competing machines, giving him great power within the cigarette industry. Tobacco companies that licensed Bonsack's machine ended by dominating their national markets and expanding abroad. Yet in the 1880s the future success of the Bonsack was not clear. Adopting the machine was a significant risk because many believed that when a smoker chose a smoking product, part of his or her decision was based on the skill it took to roll or mix the tobacco. Indeed, several tobacco companies showed no interest in Bonsack's machine. Finally, in 1883 it was licensed to the French tobacco monopoly, in England to W.D. & H.O. Wills and later in 1885 to the American firm W. Duke, Sons, & Co., headed by James B. Duke.

Advertising and Globalization

The adoption of this industrial technology created problems of oversupply. One means used by Duke and Wills to rectify this quandary was to create new markets through mass advertising. Methods included newspaper advertisements, window displays, wall murals, handbills, and collectible cigarette cards with such images as scantily clad women and sports stars. Advertising was expensive and Duke in particular spent extravagantly; in 1889, for example, 20 percent of his sales were spent on advertising. Though Wills spent less on advertising than Duke, both companies came to dominate the cigarette markets in their respective countries.

While Duke had conquered the cigarette market in the United States, cigarettes were still a long way from being the most popular way to consume tobacco. Duke used his profits in the cigarette industry to gain control of much of the tobacco industry. In the last half of the 1890s Duke's American Tobacco Company (ATC) was involved in what historians have called the "Plug War": the ATC sold plug tobacco at a loss to gain a significant market and then arranged to purchase the remaining competition.

Duke in particular sought to go beyond his national borders and construct a global tobacco empire. In some countries he was able to do this by exporting from the United States, thus helping him solve problems of excess production. In other countries tariff barriers made this unprofitable so he built factories or made alliances with local firms. In the 1890s, Duke established divisions in Australia, Canada, Japan, South Africa, and Germany using his control over Bonsack's technology and the same kinds of managerial hierarchies and business methods as he had pioneered with great success in the United States.

In 1901, Duke looked to conquer the British market as well, creating Imperial tobacco through an alliance with Ogden's, an important competitor of Wills. In retaliation Wills entered the American market and a massive round of price cutting and advertising ensued on both sides of the Atlantic until a truce was declare in 1902. According to the agreement, both companies were left to their national markets and international markets were left to a jointly owned, newly created British American Tobacco Company (BAT). For ten years BAT was largely controlled by its American partners but in 1911 the British took an upper hand when the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved the ATC into competing companies after it was found to be in violation of U.S. antimonopoly laws. Companies formed as a result of the ATC dissolution remain the dominant players within the international cigarette industry into the twenty-first century.

Cigar Making

While new industrial technologies significantly transformed production processes in smoking, chewing, and snuff tobacco, as well as in cigarette production, technological changes were not inevitable nor did they affect all domains of the tobacco industry. Cigar manufacturing stands out as only being changed in a limited way by industrial technologies. Until the end of the eighteenth century, cigar making largely took place in Spain and in Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. After that time, cigar makers spread through Europe. English, Dutch, and especially German immigrants brought the cigar-making trade to North America, competing with imported cigars and tobacco farmers who rolled their own. Small artisanal shops sprung up in the 1830s and 1840s and cigar sales expanded significantly. While larger cigar factories were established from the mid-nineteenth century, these factories were little more than artisans brought together under one roof with their trade remaining largely unchanged.

The skill involved in making a good cigar was supposed to be acquired during a three-year apprenticeship. Apprenticeship agreements in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries laid out a set of responsibilities between master and servant. In exchange for the young apprentice's labor, he (in the cigar trade, rollers were almost exclusively male) received little or no pay, but was fed, sheltered, clothed, and taught a craft. A fully trained cigar maker used few tools to roll a cigar from start to finish. He began by choosing, blending, and shaping the filler tobacco into a "bunch," which was then rolled into a binder leaf. He then rolled the wrapper leaf around the bound filler.

By the 1880s, in the move from artisanal shop to industrial factory, this apprenticeship system had already broken down and many cigar makers who had completed their apprenticeships were not able to complete a full cigar. In the 1870s the cigar mold was introduced. Teams of workers, including women and children, performed segments of the rolling process and soon replaced cigar makers. With limited success, these transformations in the craft were vigorously opposed by cigar-maker unions in cigar-making countries. Well into the twentieth century in North America, the Cigar Makers International Union continued to control its own hours of work (to an extent), own its own tools, and have its members paid by the number of cigars they rolled. From the 1870s to World War I this union played a leading role in organized labor in North America.

The major technological change in the cigar-making industry came in the 1920s when a machine was perfected to produce cigars. From 1901, the American Machine and Foundry Company, a subsidiary of James B. Duke's ATC, began research on a machine. In 1919, in the midst of a wave of strikes the AMFC introduced its cigar-making machine, which produced 6,000 to 8,000 cigars per day. The consequences of introducing the machine were similar to the introduction of the new technologies in other areas of the tobacco industry: The workforce became dominated by low-paid women, and in some places children, and the price of cigars dropped. These machine workers also differed from cigar makers because they were paid by the hour, not by the per-thousand cigars, and they no longer controlled their hours of work. The introduction of new technologies in the cigar industry differed from other sectors of the tobacco industry because hand-rolled cigars continued to be valued partially for the skilled labor used to roll them. Indeed, while cheap machine-made cigars outsell handmade cigars, to this day those that are hand rolled, especially in Cuba, are viewed as being of higher quality and thus command far higher prices than machine-made cigars.

See Also Labor; State Tobacco Monopolies.



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stripping in the Burley and fire-cured tobacco cultures, cured leaves must be separated from the dead stalk. This is called "stripping."

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.

plug a small, compressed cake of flavored tobacco usually cut into pieces for chewing.

hydraulic to operate through the force of liquid, typically water or oil. For centuries, mill machinery was powered by hydraulic (water-operated) wheels.

cigarette cards paper trading cards sometimes featuring sports personalities or movie stars packaged with cigarettes and offered as an incentive for purchase.

subsidiary in commerce, a branch or affiliate of a larger unit that provides components or support services.

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Industrialization and Technology