Development of the twentieth-century American tobacco industry has been taking place for hundreds of years. From its beginnings in North and South America, the custom of using tobacco spread to the European countries and then to the colonies, where as an important export crop it was a factor instrumental in ensuring the permanency of the colonial establishment in the New World. Gradually, usage of tobacco became a significant part of world society and its economy. The modern tobacco industry that flourishes today is an outgrowth of the tobacco empire established by the industrious Washington Duke and his family.
European explorers journeying to the American continents in the late 1400s picked up the habit of smoking tobacco from the natives of the land. The Indians, who believed that the smoking of leaves instilled in them supernatural powers, used tobacco only during ceremony, thereby making it a commodity of sacred value. In contrast, the white men adopted the tobacco custom purely for pleasure.
In Europe, the Spanish and French began the cultivation and promotion of tobacco. During the sixteenth century Spain dominated the world's tobacco trade. In France, the fame of the leaf spread throughout the countryside when it was popularized as a cure-all by Jean Nicot, the ambassador to Portugal. It was in his honor that the plant was named Nicotiana. The Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh, who had acquired the habit of pipe smoking from the returning Roanoke Island colonists, persuaded his countrymen to take up the practice which was to become an integral part of English life.
The origin and development of tobacco culture in colonial Virginia was a reflection of the growing British demand for the leaf. In the early years of the colony the settlers cultivated Nicotiana rustica, a variety of tobacco native to Virginia. It was inferior, however, to the milder Spanish type known as Nicotiana tabacum preferred by most European consumers. In 1612 John Rolfe brought seeds of the Spanish variety from the West Indies where it was flourishing. In combination with the Virginia soil, the seed produced a pleasant tobacco which soon rivalled the Spanish product.
During the colonial period tobacco became the most valuable export commodity of Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. In addition the crop was used often in lieu of currency in those colonies. During the American Revolution tobacco played a key role in the success of the colonists's drive to gain independence. It bought needed supplies in Europe and was used to pay debts of war. Following the Revolution, cultivation of the leaf spread into new areas of the country and increased as well in parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Crop production in Virginia shifted from the Tidewater area into the Piedmont in conjunction with the inward migration of settlers.
The predominant strain of tobacco under cultivation prior to the Civil War was a dark variety grown on rich soil. During the early 1800s, however, prompted by the demand of consumers for a more mild-flavored smoking tobacco, growers began searching for a new variety of tobacco. They experimented with less fertile soils and new curing methods in hopes of developing a lighter-colored, finer-textured leaf. Still, no farmer was able to devise a formula that consistently produced a yellow tobacco until in 1839, when an accident led to the disclosure of a standard method for producing "bright" leaf. Stephen, a slave belonging to the Slade family of Caswell County, North Carolina, discovered that the intense heat of charcoal as a curing fuel yielded yellow tobacco. According to tradition, young Stephen was tending the fires in a curing barn on a rainy night. He fell asleep and discovered when he awoke that the neglected fires had nearly died out. His wood was damp, so the boy ran to a nearby blacksmith forge and returned with a supply of charcoal. The application of the charcoal on the embers of the fire resulted in a barnful of yellow tobacco. In 1856 Abisha Slade had developed a systematic procedure for producing bright tobacco, implementing both cultivation of the crop on infertile soil and the use of charcoal in curing. Slade's procedure claimed widespread attention among farmers along the Virginia-North Carolina border. Bright tobacco production increased gradually in the region until the disruptive effects of the Civil War temporarily brought its growth to a standstill. The new, mild tobacco was to have a tremendous impact upon the American tobacco industry.