Bright Leaves

PBS Premiere: Aug. 23, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

North Carolina & Tobacco: Timeline

1586Colonists return from North America with dried tobacco leaves and seeds, presenting them to their patron, Sir Walter Raleigh

1663Charles II grants land south of Virginia to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, who attract tobacco farmers from the rapidly growing colonies in Virginia

1765The first North Carolina port for trade opens at Edenton. Tobacco production in the state is substantially less than in Virginia, which dominates the trans-Atlantic trade.

1839A slave known only as Stephen, working on the farm of Captain Abisha Slade, develops a new means of curing tobacco with heat, producing vivid yellow “brightleaf” tobacco. The new product gains popularity quickly, and brightleaf, or flue-cured, tobacco is soon produced throughout the region. Farmers quickly discover that the new curing process makes tobacco a viable crop on land formerly considered worthless for farming.

1858Robert Morris and his son open the first tobacco factory in Durham, manufacturing “Best Flavored Spanish Smoking Tobacco.”

Early Bull Durham tobacco packaging

Tobacco processed in Durham becomes popular among Civil War soldiers, creating a national market for the variety that later became known as Bull Durham, sold by W.T. Blackwell and Company.

1870First tobacco factory opens in Winston (later Winston-Salem).

1871First tobacco warehouse opens in Durham, making it an appealing base for more manufacturers.

James Buchanan Duke

Washington Duke and his son James Buchanan “Buck” Duke build their first facility in Durham.

1875Richard Joshua Reynolds builds the first tobacco factory in Winston-Salem, producing chewing tobacco.

1880North Carolina farms yield over 10 million pounds of tobacco. Factories produce more than 2 million cigarettes, with each worker rolling about four cigarettes by hand per minute.

1884The Duke company buys an exclusive domestic license to a mechanical cigarette-rolling machine invented by Englishman James Bonsack. Production increases dramatically, to over 100,000 cigarettes per day.

1890Five firms control 90 percent of the American cigarette market. Buck Duke persuades his rivals to merge, creating the American Tobacco Company, the world’s largest tobacco company.

1900More than four billion cigarettes are sold. Buck Duke’s American Tobacco Company acquires R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Liggett and Myers, its largest remaining rivals. The anti-smoking movement, tied to the temperance movement, has succeeded at placing restrictions on tobacco sales throughout the United States, including four states that ban the sale of cigarettes outright.

1907-1911Federal regulators file an antitrust legal action against American Tobacco, which controls 92 percent of the world tobacco market. In 1911, the Supreme Court orders the company to be split into five divisions: American Tobacco, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Liggett and Myers and the British-American Tobacco Company.

1918Bull Durham rolling tobacco and Camel cigarettes are distributed to American soldiers as daily rations during World War I.

1924Over 70 billion cigarettes sold in the United States, with Camels dominating the market. Buck Duke donates $40 million to Durham’s Trinity College, which is renamed Duke University.

North Carolina house

Federally-run quota system for tobacco farmers is put into place to protect farmers during the Clutch Plague. Farmers accept limits on production in exchange for government price supports.

American Tobacco Campus, 1930

Durham-based American Tobacco, manufacturer of Pall Mall and Lucky Strike brands, leads the American market, trailed by Camel manufacturer R.J.Reynolds of Winston-Salem.

1950The top five brands sell more than 300 billion cigarettes in the United States. North Carolina farms yield 850 million pounds of tobacco.

1964US Surgeon General issues a report linking smoking to lung cancer.

1970sCigarette ads are banned from American television and radio in 1971. As consumption falls, layoffs become a regular event at cigarette factories. R.J. Reynolds drops “tobacco” from its corporate name. Companies begin to sponsor sporting events, such as the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour, NASCAR’s Winston Cup racing series and Marlboro Cup horse racing. Federal and state price supports for tobacco farmers continue to subsidize annual crops.

1980sAs the number of smokers continues to fall, tobacco manufacturers close more facilities in Durham, Winston-Salem and elsewhere in the state. Large manufacturers diversify their businesses by acquiring non-tobacco holdings: R.J. Reynolds purchases Nabisco and Philip Morris buys General Foods. North Carolina state legislators vote to increase subsidies for farmers, but federal quotas are reduced annually, shrinking farmers’ profits. In 1980, North Carolina farmers produce 740 million pounds of tobacco.

1990sAs concerns about the risks of secondhand smoke increase, smoking is banned in nearly all indoor public places and workplaces throughout the United States. Sickened smokers and their survivors file a series of lawsuits against the tobacco companies, although most fail to win substantial damage awards. The Food and Drug Administration considers regulating tobacco as a drug. As restrictions on smoking increase in the United States, tobacco company profits are increasingly tied to foreign markets, decreasing the demand for domestically grown tobacco and prompting further plant closings and layoffs. In 1999, 436 million pounds of tobacco are grown in North Carolina.

2005Federal tobacco quotas and price supports end. Farmers may elect to receive a series of annual payments, starting in 2005 and continuing until 2014, as compensation for the loss of their official allotments. This program means the end of all restrictions on growing and selling tobacco, but analysts predict that the majority of growers will cease growing tobacco.

Photos (top to bottom):

  1. Early packaging for the Bull Durham brand of tobacco, manufactured by W.T. Blackwell and Company
  2. James Buchanan “Buck” Duke. Photo courtesy of Duke Homestead
  3. Tobacco barn near Gordonton, North Carolina. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USF34- 019986-C
  4. American Tobacco Campus, 1930