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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
Tobacco: Uses and abuses
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

The first English settlers in the “New World” harbored hopes of finding treasures of gold and silver like those that the Spanish conquistadores had pillaged from Native Americans. Significant discoveries of such treasures were two centuries and a continent’s width away. However, the colonists in Virginia found a plant that would eclipse the conquistadores’ wealth as people fell under its sway. It is called tobacco.

One of many things borrowed from Native Americans, its use quickly spread to Europe, craved by royalty and commoner alike. Some smoked the shredded leaves in pipes like the Natives. Others used it in the form of ground up powder sniffed in pinches into the nostrils for a quicker path to the brain, much like the modern use of powdered cocaine. Sniffing, precursor to the later term “snuff” for tobacco use, was favored by the upper echelons of society. However consumed, the weed quickly became a major export for Virginia and later other colonies.

By comparison to Virginia and the Carolinas, Georgia’s involvement was limited, in part because of soil quality in the more heavily populated areas. The coastal area exported sugar, rice and Sea Island cotton. With Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin to separate fiber from seeds of short-staple cotton, that crop surged into the Piedmont. The soil of the southern region, sandy to loamy, was not suited to this crop but had vast forests with timber to be harvested and food for cows, hogs and sheep.

However, “King Cotton” had its day in South Georgia after the Civil War. In some sections, Sea Island cotton grew well, while others turned to the short-staple type, becoming more competitive as erosion struck much of the Piedmont. 

Then came a devastating bug, the boll weevil, some say from Texas. By the 1920s, cotton production plummeted everywhere. In South Georgia, the new hope was tobacco. It was not suited for the air-cured burley variety of the mountains, but its soil was good for the flu-cured type of eastern North Carolina and Virginia and part of South Carolina. “Demonstrators” came to show farmers how to grow, harvest and cure the crop and how to build and use curing barns. Auction markets came to towns where much tobacco was grown and market to factory transportation was available.

Much has been written and sung about how much labor is involved in cotton production. As a veteran hand with both cotton and tobacco, I can say with authority that cotton cannot compare with tobacco. From clearing new ground beside a branch for seed beds in the cold of December to getting final harvests to market in August, there are thousands of hours of labor, none of them pleasant.

However, tobacco was a boon in South Georgia. Bad seasons broke farmers’ hearts, but it was usually more profitable than anything else. Growing international demand and cigarettes being made fashionable in movies and media kept the market strong and growing. Towns that had auction markets enjoyed brief boom times when buyers, shippers and crews came during sale seasons. There were jobs of all sorts from laborers to school teachers on summer break who worked with money and records at auction houses. Motels and restaurants were busy.

Tobacco had positive uses. Cured leaves that couldn’t be sold for some reason were spread in animal pens to ward off flies and other insects. A dab of damp snuff placed on a wasp sting would reduce the pain and swelling.

Tobacco in various forms, mainly cigarettes, was widely used by farmers as well as those who purchased their products. Few farmers could afford cigars. In hard times, individual or general, many rolled their own cigarettes with paper “folds” and loose tobacco, usually bought in rectangular cans. "Prince Albert" was a popular brand, but there were others and some cloth bag containers. A few had small machines that would roll “folds” and loose tobacco into neat cigarettes just like “ready rolls,” cheap but still cool looking. The same loose tobacco was used by pipe smokers.

Many men chewed tobacco. Their choice was “plug,” a rectangle of compressed tobacco with some sort of sweetening. My maternal grandfather was a chewer, his favorite brand being “Brown Mule.” Chewers would either cut off a chunk with a knife or bite one off the plug. Depending on the size of the chunk, tobacco juice could be messy around corners of the mouth. A cousin once talked me into trying Granddaddy’s plug. I thought it was going to tug my tongue out by its roots. I was cured, but he tried it later and lost his breakfast.

Before fashions changed and females began to smoke cigarettes, snuff was their acceptable tobacco. It was not sniffed up the nose. It went into the mouth between lower lip and gum. Done neatly, it was not messy, but those who dipped deeply soon had brown liquid at both corners of the mouth. Not conducive to amour.

People did not know that tobacco in any form is carcinogenic and extremely addictive. Boys grew up believing that they had to smoke to become men. Movies convinced girls that smoking made them look sophisticated. The crop that saved parts of South Georgia financially took a toll on its people — and continues to do so.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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