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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Tobacco is as American as
apple pie and baseball

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Though fewer people are using tobacco products today, probably most of our ancestors used tobacco in some form or another. My immediate family were smokers, my grandparents dipped snuff and chewed tobacco and both pipes and cigars were used on occasion.

Believe it or not, tobacco is strictly an American crop and product. The earliest known dated item concerning use of tobacco is a Mayan stone carving, circa 400 A.D., showing a priest puffing on a pipe. The tobacco plant grew wild in North, Central and South America.

Christopher Columbus and crews were the first white men to witness the use of tobacco by natives of Cuba in 1492, where "firebrands" resembling cigars were held in the mouth and puffed out smoke. They also made a dough of ground up tobacco leaves for chewing.

The word nicotine came from Jean Nicot de Villemain, a Portugal Ambassador who carried the tobacco plants to France in 1558. The habit was spread mostly by soldiers and sailors who carried the habit to ports of call around the world.

English colonists in America saw profit and began raising domesticated tobacco. About 60 species of tobacco were eventually grown and harvested. The greatest innovation in producing mild tobacco was the discovery of drying new tobacco by the "flue" process, which dried the leaves keeping the fuel fumes apart from the product.

Pipe smoking was the original form of tobacco use and was used in mostly religious ceremonies. Chewing plug or twist tobacco was probably the second form with finely-ground snuff tobacco next. The fourth use was the wrapped cigar in crude firebrand form.

The Mexicans and Indians smoked cigarillos made of corn shucks rolled around roughly ground tobacco for centuries and are given credit for the cigarette. Interestingly, the "stogie," a crude slang name for a cigar, originated when drivers of the famed Conestoga wagons brought the crude cigar west and preferred it over other tobacco forms.

Prepared and mixed blends of snuff did not appear until about 1900. These milder mixes became the favorite of the Irish washer women across America and soon many women of all ages began discreet use.

The first chewing tobacco came in a "cable" or "twist" resembling a twisted rope. Out west, the twist of tobacco was called a "plew," like a beaver plew, as one beaver skin was the price for the tobacco package.

Next came the "plank" of tobacco, a pressed board of tobacco three inches wide, one half inch thick and eighteen inches to three feet long. Most customers bought "plugs" of the plank which were cut off the plank with a tobacco guillotine sitting on the counter operated by the store owner.

All forms of tobacco eventually evolved into neater and more pleasant packaging with wooden cigar boxes becoming beautifully decorated with chromolithograph art.

By the way, in 1863 the government decreed that cigars be packaged in wooden cigar boxes so that a tax stamp could be affixed across the lid in order to finance the costs of the Civil War.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"

November 6, 2007 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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