Atlantic History Tobacco
by
Barbara Hahn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0141

Introduction

Tobacco is a New World plant. It first came to the notice of Europeans when Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean. His sailors remarked its use by Native Americans, and its commodity leaves became a classic example of the Columbian Exchange, in which American plants entered European trade routes (and vice versa) after 1492. Spain and Portugal introduced it to Europe and their sailors carried it around the world. It became the first staple crop successfully exported from the English colonies of North America in 1617 and shifted the colony toward plantation production using slave labor by the 18th century. British settlers around the Chesapeake Bay found that tobacco cultivation perfectly served mercantilist purposes, in which colonies existed in order to provide raw materials that the imperial metropolis could manufacture for sale around the world, leading to a favorable balance of trade. Since the 16th century, one nation after another picked up the tobacco habit; the British were lucky to find their principal crop powerfully addictive, which contributed to the nation’s imperial power. Around the world, in producing and consuming regions, both colonial and metropolitan laws regulated the trade. Manufacturing made multiple consumer goods out of agricultural products, and consumption methods included smoking tobacco—usually its leaves—in pipes and cigars, as well as chewing, snuffing, and dipping. With consumption came cultivation: French, Spanish, and Dutch empires all grew tobacco where they found mild climates, but leaf from the British Chesapeake remained popular in world markets. American independence from Britain after 1776 and the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 did little to disrupt the dominance of the crop or the consumption of its commodities. In the 20th century, cigarettes became the principal method of consumption—a shift that accompanied the development of corporations, nearly global monopolies, that still produce most of the world’s tobacco products. Since the middle of the 20th century, public health concerns have diminished tobacco consumption in postindustrial nations, while new consumers appear in developing countries as they enter the world capitalist system and engage in industrial production.

General Overviews

A broad brush is useful when painting a history of tobacco, which spans the experience of many nations and multiple imperial efforts. Only a few overviews attempt a complete picture of cultivation, trade, manufacturing, and consumption around the world over the last five hundred years. Gately 2001 comes closest, providing an excellent overview of the commodity’s history for a general reader. Cabrera Infante 1985, on the other hand, focuses principally on cigars, but his Spanish-focused perspective is a necessary corrective to Gately’s rather British point of view. This romantic view of cigars and tobacco consumption also represents a distinct branch of the literature on the crop: the appreciative user presenting the enthusiast’s lore. Burns 2006 provides excellent coverage of colonial extraction and European adoption, then turns to disapproval as consumption shifts to cigarettes. Hahn 2011 uses the history of tobacco production to reinterpret several of the standard narratives of US history. Goodman 1994 operates from a more scientific perspective, and his careful exposition of the plant’s chemistry illuminates the changing methods of consumption, while his global perspective presents the crop as a tool of ongoing colonization. In a different vein, Wiencek 1999 is more the history of a Southern tobacco-planting family than an overview of tobacco history, but it successfully introduces themes of the development of slavery, the compulsion to westward expansion, and race relations both before and after the Civil War, all within the context of tobacco cultivation.

  • Burns, Eric. The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rather US-centered version of popular tobacco history, this gracefully written book introduces the usual lore about the European adoption of tobacco and the British Chesapeake. Becomes an antismoking tract in its coverage of the 20th century.

  • Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Holy Smoke. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

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    Contains legends and folklore about cigars and their famous devotees.

  • Gately, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. New York: Grove, 2001.

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    Originally published under the title Nicotiana (London: Simon & Schuster, 2001). A popular history of the plant and its cultivation, trade, and consumption across centuries and continents. Entertaining and reasonably accurate, this is probably the best introduction available.

  • Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

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    This careful study blends planters, slaves and multinational corporations, colonialism and consumerism, the botany of the plant, and the chemistry of consumption for a world perspective on the plant and its cultivation, marketing, and use. Sound and scientific and somewhat dry in style.

  • Hahn, Barbara. Making Tobacco Bright: Creating an American Commodity, 1617–1937. Studies in the History of Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A long span of US history through the lens of tobacco production, including changing cultivation technologies, the development of both global and domestic markets, and the origins of the tobacco manufacturing industry.

  • Wiencek, Henry. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Intended for a popular audience, this study of a tobacco-planting family (with both black and white branches) covers race relations and the westward expansion of plantation production from the perspective of tobacco production as a window onto Southern history.

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