Origin And Development Of The Inspection System

Within a few years after Rolfe’s successful experiment in the cultivation of tobacco, it became necessary to inaugurate some means of improving the quality of the Virginia tobacco. Once it was discovered that tobacco could be successfully and profitably grown in Virginia, everyone wanted to grow it. Blacksmiths, carpenters, shipwrights, and even the minister frequently grew a patch of tobacco. Owing to inexperience in farming of any kind, plus the fact that the commercial production of tobacco was new even to most of the experienced farmers, much of the tobacco produced was of a very low quality. For centuries many planters seem to have placed quantity above quality in growing tobacco. Anyone could grow tobacco in certain quantities, but only a few could produce tobacco of superior quality.

The first general inspection law in Virginia was passed in 1619 and provided that all tobacco offered for exchange at the magazine, the general storehouse in Jamestown, found to be very “mean” in quality by the magazine custodian was to be burnt. The magazine was abolished in 1620 and in 1623 this law was amended to provide for the appointment of sworn men in each settlement to condemn all bad tobacco.

In 1630 an act was passed prohibiting the sale or acceptance of inferior tobacco in payment of debts. The commander of each plantation or settlement was authorized to appoint two or three experienced and competent men to help him inspect all tobacco, offered in payment of debts, which had been found “mean” by the creditor. If the inspectors declared the tobacco mean, the inferior tobacco was burned and the delinquent planter was disbarred from planting tobacco. Only the General Assembly could remove this disability. Owing to complaints that the commanders were showing partiality to planters on their own plantations, the act was amended in 1632; the commander’s power of inspection was removed and his duty was limited to appointing two inspectors and making the final report. The appointment of inspectors was made compulsory in case of a complaint.

The following year (1633) a more comprehensive measure was enacted. It provided that all inspections were to be made at five different points in the colony: James City, Shirley Hundred Island, Denbigh, Southampton River in Elizabeth City, and Cheskiack. Storehouses were to be built at these places and all tobacco was to be brought to these storehouses before the last day of December of each year. At these storehouses the tobacco was to be carefully inspected and all of the bad tobacco separated from the good and burned. This duty was to be performed once each week by inspectors under oath, one of whom was to be a member of the Council. All tobacco found in the barns of the planters after December 31 was to be confiscated, unless reserved for family use. All of those planning to keep tobacco for that purpose were required to swear to this fact before the proper officials before December 31. All debts were to be paid at one of these five storehouses, with the storekeeper as a witness. Before the end of the year (1633) two other such storehouses were authorized to be built,–one at Warrasquoke and the other at a point lying between Weyanoke and the Falls. In addition to the Councillors, members of the local courts were added as inspectors. The provision requiring the burning of unmerchantable tobacco may have been enforced, but the storehouses were never built.

In 1639 all of the mean tobacco and half of the good was ordered destroyed. The legislature passed an act providing for the appointment of 213 inspectors, three were assigned to each district. These inspectors were authorized to break down the doors of any building if they had reason to believe that tobacco was being concealed within. This act was designed primarily to restrict the quantity of tobacco to be marketed owing to the flooded markets abroad and the resulting low prices.

All of the inspection laws passed after 1632 were formally repealed in 1641. The only important inspection law left on the statute books was the one passed in 1630 requiring the plantation commander, who was later replaced by the county lieutenant, to appoint two or three inspectors to inspect tobacco sold or received in payment of a debt, upon complaint of the buyer or creditor that he had been passed some bad tobacco. The law remained on the books until 1730. After these early attempts to establish an effective inspection system, little further progress was made during the seventeenth century. Occasional acts aimed at controlling the quantity and quality of tobacco continued to be passed from time to time; such as laws prohibiting the tending of seconds, false packing, and planting or replanting tobacco after a certain date.

As the tobacco industry continued to expand into the interior, the need and the difficulty of regulating the quality of the leaf increased. Owing to ignorance or indifference, the frontier planters seldom resorted to methods of improving the quality of the crop. They traded their tobacco in small lots with the outport merchants, those from ports other than London, mostly Scottish, who sold the inferior tobacco to the countries in northern Europe. In 1705 the Council proposed that an experienced and competent person be appointed in each county to inspect and receive all tobacco for discharge of debts in that county at specifically named storehouses and “at no other place.” These county agents were to meet and select proper locations for building the storehouses. Owners of the land sites selected were to be given the privilege of building and renting these storehouses. If the owner did not choose to build, he could rent the land site to the county agent that he might build on it. If both refused to build, it was proposed that the county court should buy the land and erect the storehouse.

Storehouses were already established on many of the land sites proposed. In 1680, to accelerate the growth of towns, the General Assembly had passed an act providing that fifty acres of land be laid out for towns at convenient landings and that storehouses be built in each, at which all goods imported had to be landed and all exports stored while awaiting transportation. The towns and storehouses were located in the following places in twenty counties: Accomac, Calvert’s Neck; Charles City, Flower de Hundred; Elizabeth City, Hampton; Gloucester, Tindall’s Point; Henrico, Varina; Isle of Wight, Pates Field on Pagan Creek; James City, James City; Lancaster, Corotomond River; Middlesex, Urbanna Creek; Nansemond, Dues Point; New Kent, Brick House; Norfolk, on the Elizabeth River at the mouth of the Eastern River; Northampton, Kings Creek; Northumberland, Chickacony; Essex, Hobb’s Hole; Stafford, Pease Point, at the mouth of Deep Creek; Westmoreland, Nominie; and York, Ship Honors Store. Though none of the proposals were passed by the General Assembly in 1705, they were incorporated into later legislation and provided the basis for an effective inspection system.

In 1712 the General Assembly once again decided it would be advantageous to have designated places in each county where tobacco and other products could be kept safe while waiting for transportation to England, and an act was passed providing that all houses already built and being used as public “rolling-houses”, that is warehouses, within one mile of a public landing, be maintained by their respective owners. If there were no such warehouses at designated locations, the county courts were given the authority to order new ones built. If the owner of the site refused to build, the county could, after a fair appraisal, buy the land and build a warehouse at public expense. When and if the warehouse was discontinued, the land reverted to the original owner or his heirs. It is interesting to know that the warehouse built at Urbanna, in Middlesex County, in 1680, is still standing, and it is “America’s only colonial built warehouse for tobacco still in existence”.

The owners were compelled to receive all goods offered, and were to receive storage rates for these services. For goods stored in casks of sixty gallons in size, or bales or parcels of greater bulk, the owners of the storehouses received twelve pence for the first day or the first three months and six pence for every three months thereafter. The owner of the warehouse was made liable for merchandise lost or damaged while under his custody.

One of the most significant features of the 1730 inspection system was first introduced in 1713. Primarily through the efforts of Governor Spotswood, an act was passed providing for licensed inspectors at the various warehouses already established. To provide a convenient circulating medium, and one that would not meet with opposition from the English government, these inspectors were authorized to issue negotiable receipts for tobacco inspected and stored at these warehouses. Like many new and untried ideas, this law seemed somewhat radical and met a great deal of opposition. With Colonel William Byrd as their leader, the opposition was able to convince certain British officials that the added expense required by the act imposed an undue hardship on the tobacco trade. This local opposition combined with the pressure of the conservative London merchants caused the act to be vetoed by the Privy Council in 1716.

The act of 1712, providing for the regulation of public warehouses, remained in force and became a part of the rather effective inspection system established in 1730. The act was amended in 1720 giving the county courts the authority to order warehouses inconvenient to the landings discontinued. These two pieces of legislation brought all of the public warehouses near convenient landings and made the warehouse movement flexible. From this point on, as the tobacco industry shifted from one area to another, the warehouse movement kept pace. From time to time established warehouses were ordered discontinued, or new ones erected; and occasionally warehouses ordered discontinued were revived. However, it appears that inspection warehouses were not permitted above the Fall Line until after the Revolution.

In 1730 the most comprehensive inspection bill ever introduced, passed the General Assembly. The common knowledge that the past and present inspection laws had failed to prevent the importation of unmarketable tobacco, plus a long depression, had changed the attitude of many of the influential planters and merchants. Nevertheless, the act did meet with opposition from some of the English customs officials and a few of the large planters. Soon after the passage of this new inspection law a prominent planter wrote complainingly to a London merchant, “This Tobo hath passed the Inspection of our new law, every hogshead was cased and viewed by which means the tobacco was very much tumbled and made something less sightly than it was before and it causes a great deal of extraordinary trouble”. There were complaints that the new law destroyed tobacco that used to bring good money. Still another planter complained that the planter’s name and evidence on the hogshead had much more effect on the price of the tobacco than the inspector’s brand. While some of the planters expressed their disapproval of the new inspection law verbally, others resorted to violence. During the first year some villains burned two inspection houses, one in Lancaster County and another in Northumberland.

The inspection law passed in 1730 was frequently amended during the colonial period, but there were no changes in its essential features. The act provided that no tobacco was to be shipped except in hogsheads, cases, or casks, without having first passed an inspection at one of the legally established inspection warehouses; thus the shipment of bulk tobacco was prohibited. Two inspectors were employed at each warehouse, and a third was summoned in case of a dispute between the two regular inspectors. These officials were bonded and were forbidden under heavy penalties to pass bad tobacco, engage in the tobacco trade, or to take rewards. Tobacco offered in payment of debts, public or private, had to be inspected under the same conditions as that to be exported. The inspectors were required to open the hogshead, extract and carefully examine two samplings; all trash and unsound tobacco was to be burned in the warehouse kiln in the presence and with the consent of the owner. If the owner refused consent the entire hogshead was to be destroyed. After the tobacco was sorted, the good tobacco was repacked in the hogshead and the planter’s distinguishing mark, net weight, tare (weight of the hogshead), and name of inspection warehouse were stamped on the hogshead.

A tobacco note was issued to the owner of each hogshead that passed the inspection. These notes were legal tender within the county issued, and adjacent counties, except when the counties were separated by a large river. They circulated freely and eventually came into the possession of a buyer who, by presenting them at the warehouse named on the notes, exchanged them for the specified amount of tobacco. And these particular notes were thus retired from circulation. The person finally demanding possession of the tobacco was allowed to have the hogsheads reinspected if he so desired. If he was dissatisfied with the quality, he could appeal to three justices of the peace. If they found the tobacco to be unsound or trashy, the inspectors paid a fee of five shillings to each of the justices, and they were also held liable for stamping the tobacco as being good; should the tobacco be declared sound, the buyer paid the fee.

Parcels of tobacco weighing less than 200 pounds in 1730, later increased to 350, and finally 950 pounds, were not to be exported, in such cases the inspectors issued transfer notes. When the purchaser of such tobacco had enough to fill a hogshead, the tobacco was prized and the transfer notes were exchanged for a tobacco note. The tobacco could then be exported. Such small parcels were often necessary to pay a levy, or a creditor, or it might have been tobacco left over from the crop after the last hogshead had been filled and prized. These tobacco notes provided the only currency in Virginia until she resorted to the printing press during the French and Indian War. By the end of the eighteenth century the reputation of the inspectors and the value of the tobacco notes began to decline, due primarily to lax inspecting. Exporters and manufacturers frequently demanded that their tobacco be reinspected by competent agents.

The inspection law was allowed to expire in October, 1775, but it was revived the following October. During this period the payment of debts in tobacco was made on the plantation of the debtor, and if the creditor refused to accept the tobacco as sound and marketable, the dispute was referred to two competent neighbors, one chosen by each of the disputants.

Prior to 1776 tobacco that was damaged while stored in the public warehouses was paid for by the colony, but provisions were made in 1776 that such a loss was to be borne by the owner of the tobacco. In 1778 this was amended to the effect that losses by fire while stored in the warehouses would be paid for by the state. Four years later, owing to the great losses that had been sustained by the owners of the tobacco, the inspectors were held liable for all tobacco destroyed or damaged, except by fire, flood, or the enemy. The state continued to guarantee the tobacco against the fire hazard until well into the nineteenth century.

The law requiring “refused” tobacco to be burned in the warehouse kiln was repealed in 1805, and such tobacco could then be shipped anywhere within the state of Virginia. Stemmers or manufacturers were required to send a certificate of receipt of such refused tobacco purchased to the auditor of public accounts in Richmond. These receipts were then checked against the warehouse records of the amount of refused tobacco sold. Finally, in 1826, the General Assembly legalized the exportation of refused tobacco, provided the word “refused” was stamped on both ends and two sides of the hogsheads in letters at least three inches in length.

In 1730 three inspectors were appointed for each inspection by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Council. This did not always mean that there were three inspectors at each warehouse at all times. Warehouses built on opposite banks of a creek or river were frequently placed under the same inspection; that is, the three inspectors divided their time at the two warehouses. In areas where the production of tobacco declined from time to time, two warehouses were frequently placed under the jurisdiction of one set of inspectors. And if the quantity of tobacco produced in that particular area necessitated separate inspections, the change was then made. The inspection system was very flexible in this respect. The inspectors were required to be on duty from October 1 to August 10 yearly, except Sundays and holidays. By 1732 it was discovered that it was unnecessary to have three inspectors on duty at all times. Consequently, the number of regular inspectors was reduced to two, but a third was appointed to be called upon when there was a dispute between the two regular inspectors as to the quality of tobacco.

As the governor was able to choose the inspectors and place them at any warehouse within the colony, the local county people began to complain and demand that they be given more authority in this governmental function. This procedure tended to provide the governor with the opportunity to provide his friends with jobs regardless of their qualifications. In 1738 the General Assembly enacted legislation providing that the inspectors were to be appointed by the governor from a slate of four candidates nominated by the local county courts. Where two warehouses under one inspection were in different counties, two candidates were to be nominated by each county. This procedure remained unchanged until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The salaries of the inspectors were regulated by the General Assembly, though the colony did not guarantee the sums after 1755. For the first few years each inspector received £60 annually, and if the fees collected were insufficient to pay their salary, the deficient amount was made up out of public funds. After 1732 it was found that this amount was too high and unequally allocated with respect to the amount of individual services performed, as some warehouses received more tobacco than others. So for the next few years salaries were determined on the basis of the amount of tobacco inspected and ranged from £30 to £50 annually. From 1755 to 1758 the inspectors received the amount set by the legislature only if enough fees were collected by the inspectors at their respective warehouses. During the next seven years the inspectors received three shillings per hogshead, plus six pence for nails used in recoopering the tobacco, instead of a stated salary. Out of this the inspectors had to pay the proprietors of the warehouse eight pence rent per hogshead. In 1765 the inspectors were again placed on a flat salary basis, and for the next fifteen years their salaries ranged from £25 to £70. After 1780 their annual salaries ranged from about $100 at the smallest warehouses to about $330 at the largest.

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

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