The Rise of “Smallish Cigars” – How Cigarettes Became the World’s Most Popular Tobacco Product


Figure 1. Vanity Fair advertising sign from the Baltimore Federal Site (18BC33). Length: 12″.

In 1983, during excavations conducted in advance of the construction of the Baltimore Savings and Loan Association Building, archaeologists discovered a brick-lined privy that had been filled early in the fourth quarter of the 19th century.  The soil filling the privy contained multiple fragments of a blue glass advertising sign for Vanity Fair Cigarettes (Figure 1). 

Tobacco has a long history in Maryland; it formed the backbone of the colony’s agricultural production beginning soon after English settlement in the 17th century.  Tobacco hasn’t been called the state’s “money crop” for no reason; in 2010, tobacco revenues brought 546.5 million dollars into the Maryland economy (CDC 2012).

In addition to growing tobacco, Maryland’s citizens have enjoyed using it in a variety of forms over the centuries—“sipping” it through clay pipes in the 17th and 18th centuries, inhaling powdered snuff, puffing on cigars and chewing plugs of dried tobacco. Some users rolled cigarettes by hand, a practice that seems to have first appeared in the 17th century when Spanish street urchins rolled tobacco in newspaper (Cross and Proctor 2014:63). The smoking of these “smallish cigars” increased during the 19th century, particularly after English soldiers developed a taste for Turkish cigarettes during the Crimean War (Elliott 2009). Cigarette factories began to open in the United States after the Civil War.

William S. Kimball’s Peerless Tobacco Works of Rochester, New York manufactured several brands of cigarettes, including theVanity Fair (Figure 3) brand sold at Baltimore’s Federal Site (18BC33) (Elliott 2009, Shilling 2012:168). The company opened in 1867 and merged with the American Tobacco Company in 1890. New York City, Richmond, and Baltimore joined Rochester as production centers for cigarettes after the Civil War (Elliott 2009).  In Baltimore, the Marburg Tobacco Company and F. W. Felgner and Son were two of the “big six” U. S. cigarette firms that controlled 75% of national sales by the 1870s (Elliott 2009).

Figure 2. Bonsack’s cigarette rolling machine, as shown on U.S. Patent 238,640.

Today, six trillion cigarettes are smoked annually—enough to circumnavigate the globe 15,000 times (Cross and Proctor 2014:61). It took the invention of the automated rolling machine for cigarettes to achieve the popularity they hold today. A skilled worker could hand roll three to four cigarettes a minute (Anchor 2020).  With the invention of the Bonsack rolling machine in 1880 (Figure 2), that rate increased to 210 cigarettes a minute, or 120,000 in ten hours (Edwards 2015). The device rolled tobacco into a continuous strip of paper that was pasted and then cut into appropriate lengths with a rotary knife. James Albert Bonsack’s impetus for inventing the first reliable rolling machine was a $75,000 prize offered by the Allen & Ginter Company of Richmond, Virginia (Cross and Proctor 2014:71). The American Tobacco Company quickly adopted the machine and the availability and popularity of cigarettes began to take off. The use of automation standardized the size of cigarettes and allowed them to be more easily packaged for sale.  

Figure 3. Advertising card for New Vanity Fair Cigarettes, circa 1880s. Cigarette manufacturers were the first to use color lithography commercially (Cross and Proctor 2014).

With the increasing popularity of cigarettes, the number of purveyors of tobacco-related products in Baltimore began to soar.  The Baltimore Sun reported at the turn of the century that there were 2,000 tobacco stores in Baltimore (Rasmussen 1996).

At the turn of the 20th century, machine-manufactured cigarettes only made up four to five percent of tobacco productions consumed in the United States (Cross and Proctor 2014:69).  Cigarette smoking became fashionable among wealthy men during the early years of the 20th century and free cigarettes were provided to service members during World War I, causing smoking to become more prevalent.  Interestingly, the link between lung cancer and smoking was made as early as 1911 (CA-A n.d.:294), but the idea did not gain traction amongst the medical community until mid-century. Today, smoking is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 480,000 persons in the United States annually, making cigarettes the deadliest of consumer products. 

References

Anchor.  2020. The Bonsack Machine and Labor Unrest.  Anchor; A North Carolina History Online Resource.  Website accessed February 7, 2020 at https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/bonsack-machine-and-labor.

CA-A. Classics in Oncology:  Isaac Adler, M.D. (1849-1918). Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Pp. 294. Website accessed February 8, 2020 at https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.3322/canjclin.30.5.294.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2012. State Tobacco Revenues Compared with Tobacco Control Appropriations — United States, 1998–2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). May 25, 2012 / 61(20):370-374. Website accessed February 8, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6120a3.htm.

Cross, Gary S. and Robert N. Proctor.  2014.  Packaged Pleasures; How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Elliott, Richard. 2009.  The Early History of Cigarettes in America. Brandstand Vol 34: (Spring 2009). Website accessed February 8, 2020 at http://cigarhistory.info/Cigarette_items/Cigarette-History.html.

Edwards, Phil.  2015.  What Everyone Gets Wrong About the History of Cigarettes.  Vox.  April 6, 2015.

Rasmussen, Fred.  1996.  Cigars Boasted Guardians Figures: In Smoking’s Heyday, Indian Statues Stood Outside Many of the City’s 2,000 Tobacconists.  December 1, 1996.  Website accessed February 7, 2020 at https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1996-12-01-1996336203-story.html.

Shilling, Donovan A.  2012 They Put Rochester on the Map; Personalities of Rochester’s Past.