Tobacco. Note B.

Botanical name: 

Also see Tobacco.

Tobacco was discovered in Cuba, Florida and Mexico, nearly three centuries ago, and was soon after introduced from this continent into Europe. Whether or not any species of it was cultivated in the East before the discovery of America, is a point of no consequence in regard to its American nativity. The extent of country throughout which it was used by the aborigines of this continent, renders it probable that it must have been cultivated in various parts of America for many centuries previous to its discovery.

The following account of the present mode of cultivating Tobacco in our Southern States is extracted from An Historical and Practical Essay on the Culture and Commerce of Tobacco, By William Tatham. London, 1800.

First, of preparing the Tobacco Ground.

"There are two distinct and separate methods of preparing the Tobacco ground: the one is applicable to the preparation of new and uncultivated lands, such as are in a state of nature, and require to be cleared of the heavy timber and other productions with which Providence has stocked them; and the other method is designed to meliorate and revive lands of good foundation, which have been heretofore cultivated, and, in some measure, exhausted by the calls of agriculture and evaporation.

"The process of preparing new lands begins as early in the winter as the housing and managing the antecedent crop will permit, by grubbing the under growth with a mattock; felling the timber with a poll-axe; lopping off the tops, and cutting the bodies into lengths of about eleven feet, which is about the customary length of an American fence rail, in what is called a worm or pannel fence. During this part of the process the women, boys, and weaker labourers, are employed in piling or throwing the brush-wood, roots, and small wood, into heaps to be burned; and after such logs or stocks are selected as are suitable to be malled into rails, make clap-boards, or answer for other more particular occasions of the planter, the remaining logs are rolled into heaps by means of hand-spikes and skids; but the Pennsylvania and German farmers, who are more conversant with animal powers than the Virginians, save much of this labour by the use of a pair of horses with a half sledge, or a pair of truck wheels. The burning of this brush-wood, and the log piles, is a business for all hands after working hours; and as nightly revels are peculiar to the African constitution, this part of the labour proves often a very late employment, which affords many scenes of rustic mirth.

"When this process has cleared the land of its various natural incumbrances, (to attain which end is very expensive and laborious,) the next part of the process is that of the hoe; for the plough is an implement which is rarely used in new lands when they are either designed for tobacco or meadow. "There are three kinds of the hoe which are applied to this tillage: the first is what is termed the sprouting hoe, which is a smaller species of mattock that serves to break up any particular hard part of the ground, to grub up any smaller sized grubs which the mattock or grubbing hoe may have omitted, to remove small stones and other partial impediments to the next process.

"The narrow or hilling hoe follows the operation of the sprouting hoe. It is generally from six to eight inches wide, and ten or twelve in the length of the blade, according to the strength of the person who is to use it; the blade is thin, and by means of a moveable wedge which is driven into the eye of the hoe, it can be set more or less digging (as it is termed,) that is, on a greater or less angle with the helve, at pleasure. In this respect there are few instances where the American blacksmith is not employed to alter the eye of an English-made hoe before it is fit for use; the industrious and truly useful merchants of Glasgow have paid more minute attention to this circumstance.

"The use of this hoe is to break up the ground and throw it into shape; which is done by chopping the clods until they are sufficiently fine, and then drawing the earth round the foot until it forms a heap round the projected leg of the labourer like a mole hill, and nearly as high as the knee; he then draws out his foot, flattens the top of the hill by a dab with the flat part of the hoe, and advances forward to the next hill in the same manner, until the whole piece of ground is prepared. The centre of these hills are in this manner guessed by the eye; and in most instances they approach near to lines of four feet one way, and three feet the other. The planter always endeavours to time this operation so as to tally with the growth of plants, so that he may be certain by this means to pitch his crop within season.

"The third kind of hoe is the broad or weeding hoe. This is made use of during the cultivation of the crop, to keep it clean from the weeds. It is wide upon the edge, say from ten inches to a foot, or more; of thinner substance than the hilling hoe, not near so deep in the blade, and the eye is formed more bent and shelving than the latter, so that it can be set upon a more acute angle upon the helve at pleasure, by removing the wedge.

Of the Season for Planting.

"The term, season for planting, signifies a shower of rain of sufficient quantity to wet the earth to a degree of moisture which may render it safe to draw the young plants from the plant bed, and transplant them into the hills which are prepared for them in the field, as described under the last head; and these seasons generally commence in April, and terminate with what is termed the long season in May; which (to make use of an Irishism) very frequently happens in June; and is the opportunity which the planter finds himself necessitated to seize with eagerness for the pitching of his crop; a term which comprehends the ultimate opportunity which the spring will afford him for planting a quantity equal to the capacity of the collective power of his labourers when applied in cultivation.

"By the time which these seasons approach, nature has so ordered vegetation, that the weather has generally enabled the plants (if duly sheltered from the spring frosts, a circumstance to which a planter should always be attentive in selecting his plant patch) to shoot forward in sufficient strength to bear the vicissitude of transplantation.

"They are supposed to be equal to meet the imposition of this task when the leaves are about the size of a dollar; but this is more generally the minor magnitude of the leaves; and some will be of course about three or four times that medium dimension.

"Thus, when a good shower or season happens at this period of the year, and the field and plants are equally ready for the intended union, the planter hurries to the plant bed, disregarding the teeming element, which is doomed to wet his skin, from the view of a bountiful harvest, and having carefully drawn the largest sizeable plants, he proceeds to the next operation.

Of Planting.

"The office of planting the tobacco is performed by two or more persons, in the following manner: The first person bears, suspended upon one arm, a large basket full of the plants which have been just drawn and brought from the plant bed to the field, without waiting for an intermission of the shower, although it should rain ever so heavily; such an opportunity indeed, instead of being shunned, is eagerly sought after, and is considered to be the sure and certain means of laying a good foundation, which cherishes the hope of a bounteous return. The person who bears the basket proceeds thus by rows from hill to hill; and upon each hill he takes care to drop one of his plants. Those who follow make a hole in the centre of each hill with their fingers, and having adjusted the tobacco plant in its natural position, they knead the earth round the root with their hands, until is of a sufficient consistency to sustain the plant against wind and weather. In this condition they leave the field for a few days until the plants shall have formed their radifications; and where any of them shall have casually perished, the ground is followed over again by successive replantings, until the crop is rendered complete.

Of Hoeing the Crop.

"The operation of hoeing comprehends two distinct functions, viz. that of hilling, and that of weeding; and there are moreover two stages of hilling. The first hilling commences, as heretofore described, in the preparation of the field previous to planting the crop, and it is performed, as before explained, by means of the peculiar implement called a hilling hoe; the second hilling is performed after the crop is planted, with a view to succour and support the plant as it may happen to want strengthening, by giving a firm and permanent foundation to its root; and it may be effected according to the demand of the respective plants by a dexterity in changing the stroke with the weeding hoe, without any necessity to recur to the more appropriate utensil.

"The more direct use of the weeding hoe commences with the first growth of the tobacco after transplantation, and never ceases until the plant is nearly ripe, and ready to be laid by, as they term the last, weeding with the hoe; for he who would have a good crop of tobacco, or of maize, must not be sparing of his labour, but must keep the ground constantly stirring during the whole growth of the crop. And it is a rare instance to see the plough introduced as an assistant, unless it be the hook plough, for the purpose of introducing a sowing of wheat for the following year, even while the present crop is growing; and this is frequently practised in fields of maize, and sometimes in fields of tobacco, which may be ranked amongst the best fallow crops, as it leaves the ground perfectly clean and naked, permitting neither grass, weed, nor vegetable, to remain standing in the space which it has occupied.

Of Topping the Plant.

"This operation, simply, is that of pinching off with the thumb nail ["Many of the Virginians let the thumb nail grow long, and harden it in the candle, for this purpose: not for the use of gouging out people's eyes, as some have thought fit to insinuate."] the leading stem or sprout of the plant, which would, if left alone, run up to flower and seed; but which, from the more substantial formation of the leaf by the help of the nutritive juices, which are thereby afforded to the lower parts of the plant, and thus absorbed through the ducts and fibres of the leaf, is rendered more weighty, thick, and fit for market. The qualified sense of this term is applicable to certain legal restrictions founded upon long experience, and calculated to compel an amendment in the culture of this staple of the Virginia trade, so that it shall at all times excel in foreign markets, and thus justly merit a superior reputation. I do not exactly recollect the present limitation by law, which has changed, I believe, with the progress of experience; but the custom is to top the plant to nine, seven, or five leaves, as the quality and soil may seem most likely to bear.

Of the Sucker, and Suckering.

"The sucker is a superfluous sprout which is wont to make its appearance and shoot forth from the stern or stalk, near to the junction of the leaves with the stem, and about the root of the plant; and if these suckers are permitted to grow, they injure the marketable quality of the tobacco by compelling a division of its nutriment during the act of maturation. The planter is therefore careful to destroy these intruders with the thumb nail, as in the act of topping, and this process is termed suckering.

"This superfluity of vegetation, like that of the top, has been often the subject of legislative care; and the policy of supporting the good name of the Virginia produce has dictated the wisdom of penal laws to maintain her good faith against imposition upon strangers who trade with her. It has been customary in former ages to rear an inferior plant from the sucker which projects from the root after the cutting of an early plant; and thus a second crop has been often obtained from the same field by one and the same course of culture; and although this scion is of a sufficient quality for smoking, and might become preferred in the weaker kinds of snuff, it has been (I think very properly) thought eligible to prefer a prohibitory law, to a risk of imposition by means of similitude.

"The practice of cultivating suckers is on these accounts not only discountenanced as fraudulent, but the constables are strictly enjoined ex officio to make diligent search, and to employ the posse comitatus in destroying such crops; a law indeed for which, to the credit of the Virginians, there is seldom occasion; yet some few instances have occurred, within my day, where the constables have very honourably carried it into execution in a manner truly exemplary, and productive of public good.

Of the Worm.

"There are several species of the worm, or rather grub genus, which prove injurious to the culture of tobacco; some of these attack the root, and some the leaf of the plant; but that which is most destructive, and consequently creates the most employment, is the horn worm, or large green tobacco worm. This appears to me to be the same species with that which Catesby has described in the second volume of his Natural History of Carolina, p. 94, under the title eruca maxima comida, or the great horned caterpillar.

"'This caterpillar,' says he, 'is about four inches long, besides the head and tail; it consists of ten joints, or rings, of a yellow colour; on the head, which is black, grow four pair of horns, smooth and of a reddish brown towards the bottom, jagged or bearded, and black towards the top; on each of the rings arise short, jagged, black horns, one standing on the back, and two on each side; below which is a trachea on each side; likewise the horn of the back of the last ring is longest: the flap of the tail is of a bright bay colour. It hath eight feet, and six pupillae.'

"There are, besides this kind, others without horns; all of them of a green colour, so far as I recollect. And this, in Catesby's description, differs in respect to colour; this tobacco worm or horn worm, as the planters call it more particularly, being of a pale delicate green; an effect I apprehend which proceeds from the colour of its food when it feeds upon growing tobacco plants. The act of destroying these worms is termed worming the tobacco, which is a very nauseous occupation, and takes up much labour. It is performed by picking every thing of this kind off the respective leaves with the hand, and destroying it with the foot.

Of the Term "Firing."

"During very rainy seasons, and in some kinds of unfavourable soil, the plant is subject to a malady called firing. This is a kind of blight occasioned by the moist state of the atmosphere, and the too moist condition of the plant: I do not recollect whether the opposite extreme does not produce an effect something similar. This injury is much dreaded by the planter, as it spots the leaf with a hard brown spot, which perishes, and becomes so far a loss upon the commodity. I apprehend there are two stages when the plant is, in a certain degree, subject to this evil effect: the first is whilst growing in the field, the latter when hanging in the tobacco house. I know of no other remedy than constant working the ground while the seed is growing, and careful drying by the use of fire in the tobacco house.

Of the Ripening of the Crop.

"Much practice is requisite to form a judicious discernment concerning the state and progress of the ripening leaf; yet care must be used to cut up the plant as soon as it is sufficiently ripe to promise a good curable condition, lest the approach of frost should tread upon the heels of the crop-master; for in this case, tobacco will be among the first plants that feel its influence, and the loss to be apprehended in this instance, is not a mere partial damage by nippling, but a total consumption by the destruction of every plant.

"I find it difficult to give to strangers a full idea of the ripening of the leaf: it is a point on which I would not trust my own experience without consulting some able crop-master in the neighbourhood; and I believe this is not an uncustomary precaution among those who plant it. So far as I am able to convey an idea, which I find it easier to understand than to express, I should judge of the ripening of the leaf by its thickening sufficiently; by the change of its colour to a more yellowish green; by a certain mellow appearance, and protusion of the web of the leaf, which I suppose to be occasioned by a contraction of the fibres; and by such other appearances as I might conceive to indicate an ultimate suspension of the vegetative functions.

Of Cutting and Gathering the Crop.

"When the crop is adjudged sufficiently ripe to proceed to cutting, this operation is assigned to the best and most judicious hands who are employed in the culture; and these being provided each with a strong sharp knife, proceed along the respective rows of the field to select such plants as appear to be ripe, leaving others to ripen; those which are cut are sliced off near to the ground, and such plants as have thick stalks or stems are sliced down the middle of the stem in order to admit a more free and equal circulation of air through the parts during the process of curing, and to free the plant, as far as possible, from such partial retention of moisture as might have a tendency to ferment, and damage the staple. The plants are then laid down upon the hill where they grew, with the points of the leaves projecting all the same way, as nearly as possible, so that when the sun has had sufficient effect to render them pliable, they may more easily and uniformly be gathered into funis by the gatherers who follow the cutting.

Of Gathering the Crop in.

"For the better comprehending the method of gathering the crop, it is necessary to understand the preparation which must be previously made for facilitating this part of the process.

"In preparing for gathering the crop of tobacco it is customary to erect a kind of scaffold in various places of the tobacco ground which may happen to offer a convenient situation. This is done by lodging one end of several strong poles upon any log or fence which may be convenient, and resting the other end of such poles upon a transverse pole supported by forks, at about five feet from the ground; or by erecting the whole scaffold upon forks if circumstances require it.

"In forming this part of the scaffold in the manner of joists, the poles are placed about four feet asunder from centre to centre, so that when the sticks which sustain the tobacco plants are prepared they may fill the space advantageously by leaving but little spare room upon the scaffold.

"Timber is then split in the manner of laths, into pieces of four feet in length, and about an inch and a half diameter. These are termed the tobacco sticks; and their use is to hang the tobacco upon, both by lodging the ends of this stick upon the poles of the scaffold which have been previously prepared in the field, in order to render it sufficiently pliable and in condition to carry into the tobacco-house, to which it is now conveyed by such means as the planter has in his power; and by suspending it in the same way in the house, so that the air may pass through it in the process of curing. Instead of this particular method, those who prefer to do so, lay it a short while in bulk upon poles, logs, &c. in the field, before they convey it under cover."

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.