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TOBACCO: THE SOVEREIGN HERB

 

From its early beginnings as the first profitable crop in the New World to today's popular cigar bars and class action lawsuits against industry giants, tobacco has held a prominent, if controversial, role in our nation's history. John Rolfe first experimented with the plant in the Virginia soil in 1612 and soon had an easy commodity to ship to England to meet the high demand. By 1630 tobacco exports to England climbed to 500,000 pounds and by the end of the century exceeded 20 million pounds. Tobacco became so plentiful and integral to the economy that it was sometimes used as currency in the colonies. However, planters in the Chesapeake area were faced with several obstacles. Because it's a high-maintenance crop, tobacco played an instrumental role in the growth of slavery in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Furthermore, the plant depleted the soil, forcing planters to diversify and rotate crops frequently.

Tobacco can be, and was, used in various forms in its notorious history. The colonists mostly smoked it in pipes, while those with aristocratic backgrounds or leanings copied the European habit of pinching snuff. In the early 19th century, keeping with the democratic ideals of the new republic, Americans perceived chewing tobacco as more patriotic than pinching snuff.

The latter half of the 19th century witnessed another shift in tobacco use. People now began to puff on cigars as a symbol of prosperity in the Gilded Age. This era also saw the establishment of large corporations that could manufacture tobacco products cheaply and quickly with the aid of new machinery. Although cigarettes were introduced at this time, they did not catch on with smokers until the 20th century, when they reflected the urbanized, fast-paced lifestyle of America.


 

Besides the many types and brands of tobacco exist the varieties of accoutrements and pipes. Tobacco use in its many forms created a market for such items as snuffboxes and spoons, spit boxes and spittoons. A smoker could choose from an ordinary clay pipe or a water pipe to cool and purify the smoke.

Despite its extensive use, opposition to tobacco began to form. The antitobacco movement, following on the heels of the temperance movement, warned people of the dangers of tobacco as early as 1830. This conflict has only intensified throughout the 20th century with government regulation of the industry and increased scientific warnings against its use, along with widespread availability of tobacco products.


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