Management Of The Tobacco Crop

Cultivation practices during the early years at Jamestown appear to have been a combination of those used by the Indians and those of the farmers in England; modifications and new techniques were developed as the settlers became experienced planters. The early Jamestown settlers followed the Indian custom of planting the tobacco seed in hills as they did corn, although some probably followed the practice as described by Stevens and Liebault’s “Maison Rustique” or “The Country Farm”, published in London in 1606:

For to sow it, you must make a hole in the earth with your finger and that as deep as your finger is long, then you must cast into the same hole ten or twelve seeds of the said Nicotiana together, and fill up the hole again: for it is so small, as that if you should put in but four or five seeds the earth would choake it: and if the time be dry, you must water the place easily some five days after: And when the herb is grown out of the earth, inasmuch as every seed will have put up his sprout and stalk, and that the small thready roots are entangled the one within the other, you must with a great knife make a composs within the earth in the places about this plot where they grow and take up the earth and all together, and cast them into a bucket full of water, to the end that the earth may be separated, and the small and tender impes swim about the water; and so you shall sunder them one after another without breaking them.

This was perhaps the forerunner of the tobacco plantbed, as it appears from the above description that a half dozen or so plants were taken from each hill sown and transplanted nearby.

Just when the planters stopped planting tobacco like corn is not known. Thomas Glover’s “Account of Virginia”, written in 1671, is perhaps the first written account which mentions sowing the seeds in beds. He wrote, “In the Twelve-daies [before Christmas?] they begin to sow their seed in the beds of fine Mould…” A somewhat more detailed account was written in 1688 by John Clayton, an English clergyman visiting in Virginia. He relates that before the seeds were sown the planters tested the seed by throwing a few into the fire; if they sparkled like gunpowder, they were declared to be good. The ground was chopped fine and the seeds, mixed with ashes, were sown around the middle of January. To protect the young plants, the seedbed was usually covered with oak leaves, though straw was used occasionally. Straw was thought to harbor and breed a fly that destroyed the young plants, and if straw was used, it was first smoked with brimstone to kill this fly. Oak boughs were then placed on top of the leaves or straw and left there until the frosts were gone, at which time they were removed so that the young tender plants were exposed to allow them to grow strong and large enough to be transplanted.

Post-Revolutionary plantbed practices were essentially those of the early colonial planters, with slight modifications as they became more experienced. In choosing plantbed sites, a sunny southern or southeastern exposure on a virgin slope near a stream was preferred. This enabled the planter to water his plantbed in case of a drought. The practice of burning the plantbeds over with piles of brush and logs prior to seeding was no doubt a seventeenth century custom, but the first available record was found in an account written during the Revolution.

To clear land for cultivation, the settlers felled the trees about a yard from the ground to prevent the stump from sprouting and to cause the stump to decay sooner. Some of the wood was burnt or carried off and the rest was left on the field to rot. The area between the stumps and logs was then broken up with the hoe. In their ardent quest for more cleared land, the planters frequently cultivated old Indian fields, which the Indian had abandoned for one reason or another. Such land was always found to be of the best soil. Clayton stated that after the land was chopped fine, hills to set every plant in were raised to “about the bigness of a common Mole-hill….” A later account by William Tatham, relates that the hills were made by drawing a round heap of earth about knee high around the leg of the worker, the foot was then withdrawn and the top of the hill was flattened with the back of the hoe.

In 1628 the hills were made at a distance of four and one-half feet, the distance was reduced to four feet by 1671, and by 1700, three feet became and remained the usual distance. The plants were considered large enough to be transplanted when they had grown to be about the “Breadth of a Shilling,” usually around the first or second week in May. The earlier in May the better, so that the crop would mature in time to harvest before the frosts came. Planters usually waited for a rain or “season” to begin transplanting. One person with a container (usually a basket) of plants dropped a plant near each hill; another followed, made a hole in the center of each hill with his fingers, inserted the roots and pressed the earth around the roots with his hands. Several “seasons” and several drawings from the plantbeds were usually required before the entire crop was planted, which was frequently not until sometime in July.

The tobacco was hoed for the first time about eight to ten days after planting, or to use a common expression, when the plants had “taken root.” The tobacco was usually hoed once each week or as often as was deemed necessary to keep the soil “loose” and the weeds down. When the plants were about knee high they were “hilled up,” as the Indian had done his corn, or the Englishman his cabbage, and considered “laid by.” Frequently some of the plants died or were cut off by an earthworm; these vacant hills were usually replanted during the month of June, except when prohibited by law. This restriction was an attempt to reduce the amount of inferior tobacco at harvest time.

Around 1800, plows were still rarely used in new grounds, but they appear to have been rather common in the old fields. George Washington used the plow to lay off his tobacco rows into three-foot squares, the hills were then made directly on the cross so that in the early stages of its growth the tobacco could be cultivated with the plow each way. The plow lightened the burden of cultivation by requiring less hoe work.

When the plant began to bloom, usually six or seven weeks after planting, the plant was topped; that is, the top of the plant was pinched out with the thumb and finger nails. The number of leaves left on the plant depended largely upon the fertility of the soil. In the early days of the colony, planters left twenty-five or thirty leaves on a plant, by 1671 the number had been reduced to twelve or sixteen in very rich soil. Throughout the seventeenth century the General Assembly, in an attempt to reduce production, occasionally limited the number of leaves that could be left on a plant after topping. After around 1700, from five to nine leaves were left on the plant, depending on the strength of the soil.

After topping, the plant grew no higher, but the leaves grew larger and heavier and sprouts or suckers appeared at the junction of the stalk and the leaf stem. If allowed to grow they injured the marketable quality of tobacco by taking up plant food that would have gone into the leaves. These suckers were removed by pinching them off with the thumb and finger nails. Owing to his laziness or ignorance, the Indian did not top his tobacco, though he did keep the suckers out. Tobacco that has been topped will produce a second set of suckers once the first growth has been removed. If the tobacco is not topped, only three or four suckers will appear, and these grow in the very top of the plant. During the course of the growing season the colonial planter had two sets of suckers to remove, from the junction of each leaf and from the bottom to the top of the plant, whereas the Indian had only a total of three or four per plant. Thus it appears that the planter learned from his own experience to top tobacco, and that it was a laborious though profitable task. It has been said that topping was first used as a means of limiting the production of tobacco to the very best grades by the planters as early as the 1620’s.

Only a planter with considerable experience could tell when the plant was ripe for harvest. This no doubt accounts for much of the inferior tobacco produced in the early days of the colony. Planters usually had their own individual methods of determining when a plant was ripe for cutting. Some thought the plants were ripe and ready to cut when a vigorous growth of suckers appeared around the root; others believed the plant was ripe when the top leaves of the plant became covered with yellow spots and “rolled over,” touching the ground. Occasionally it had to be cut regardless of its maturity to save it from the frost.

During the early days at Jamestown the tobacco was harvested by pulling the ripe leaves from the plants growing in the fields. The leaves were then piled in heaps and covered with hay to be cured by sweating. In 1617, a Mr. Lambert discovered that the leaves cured better when strung on lines than when sweated under the hay. This innovation was further facilitated in 1618 when Governor Argall prohibited the use of hay to sweat tobacco, owing to the scarcity of fodder for the cattle. It was probably this new method of curing that led to the building of tobacco barns, which were known to be in use at the time of the Indian Massacre in 1622.

By 1671 the planters had stopped stringing the leaves on lines; the tobacco plant was cut off just above the top of the ground and left lying in the field for three or four hours, or until the leaves “fell” or became somewhat withered so that the plant could be handled without breaking the stems and fibers in the leaves. The plants were then carried into the tobacco barns, and hung on tobacco sticks by a small peg that had been driven into each stalk.

During the early years of the eighteenth century the pegs were superseded by partially spliting the stalk and hanging it on the sticks. The use of fire in curing tobacco was also introduced during this century, but was rarely used before the Revolution. The earlier accounts refer to curing as the action of the air and sun. If the plant was large, the stalk was split down the middle six or seven inches below the extremity of the split, then turned directly bottom upwards to enable the sun to cause it to “fall”, or wither faster. The plants were then brought to the scaffolds, which were generally erected all around the tobacco barns, and placed with the splits across a small oak stick about an inch in diameter and four and a half feet long. The sticks of tobacco were then placed on the scaffold. The tobacco remained there to cure for a brief period and then the sticks were removed from the outdoor scaffolds, carried into the tobacco barn and placed on the tier poles erected in successive regular graduation from near the bottom to the top of the barn. Once the barn was filled, the curing was sometimes hastened by making fires on the floor of the barn.

Around 1800 the most common method was still air-curing, fire was used primarily to keep the tobacco from molding in damp weather. During the War of 1812 there was a considerable shift to fire-curing owing to the demand in Europe for a smoky flavored leaf. Fire-curing not only gave tobacco a different taste, but it also improved the keeping qualities of the leaf. The fire dried the stem of the leaf more thoroughly, thus eliminating the major cause of spoilage when packed in the hogshead for shipment.

August and September were the favorite months for cutting and curing because the tobacco would cure a brighter color if cured in hot weather. Even today farmers like to finish curing their tobacco as early in September as possible. However, it was usually cold weather before all of the crop could be cut and cured. Occasionally frost would kill part of the crop before it was ripe enough to cut.

In the early years of the tobacco industry there was little to the stripping process as the leaves were hung on strings to cure. The string was removed and the leaves were twisted and wound into rolls. The leaves were twisted by hand or spun on a small spinning machine into a thick rope, from which a ball containing from one to thirty pounds was made, though some were known to weigh as much as 105 pounds. The rolls were either wrapped in heavy canvass or packed in small barrels for shipping. In 1614 four barrels containing 170 pounds each were sent to England on the “Sir Thomas”. Tobacco was also shipped loose or in small bundles known as hands, and by 1629 a considerable number of hogsheads were being used.

There seems to have been little grading in the early days. London Company officials frequently complained of the bad tobacco being mixed with the good, and early inspection laws required that the tobacco be brought to central locations and the mean tobacco separated from the bulk. After cutting became the common practice the leaves were stripped from the stalk and assorted according to variety and grade. By the 1680’s the lowest grade was known as lugs. Sweet-scented and Oronoco were usually exported separately, and usually only the sweet-scented was stemmed. If the two varieties were mixed in a hogshead, it was purchased at the prevailing Oronoco prices, which were less than those paid for sweet-scented. The English merchant claimed that he had to sell all of it as Oronoco unless it were separated and that the cost of the labor required to separate it was equal to the higher price the sweet-scented would bring. These two varieties were probably seldom mixed except perhaps to fill the last hogshead of the season. The planters eventually came to realize the value of handling tobacco with care, for when good tobacco land became less plentiful, other means of improving the quality of tobacco became necessary.

By 1665 most of the tobacco was shipped in hogsheads, but it was not until 1730 that the shipment of bulk tobacco was prohibited. Nor were the hogsheads made to any standard size until 1657, at which time they were required to be 43″ × 26″. In 1695 the standard size was raised to 48″ × 30″, and this remained the standard size until the 1790’s. In 1796 the legal size was increased to 54″ × 34″; this remained the legal size until the 1820’s. The weight of the hogshead increased from time to time. In 1657 a hogshead of tobacco weighed about 300 pounds, 600 in the 1660’s, 800 by 1730, 950 by 1765, and around 1,000 in the 1790’s. These were supposed to have been the standard or legal weights, but regulations were not strictly enforced. As early as 1757 some of the hogsheads weighed as much as 1,274 pounds. By 1800 hogsheads averaged about 1,100 pounds.

Herndon, Melvin. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg, Virginia. 1957.

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