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Processing Tobacco

( Originally Published 1938 )



In tracing the romantic, many-sided story of tobacco, one leaves the Old Belt country with regret, but the glamour which surrounds this amazing American crop follows it throughout the entire route between the tiny seed and the finished product, the cigarette.

Trailing the hogsheads of freshly cured, recently sold tobacco out of the prizeries—the packing houses where it is prepared for shipment—we find it a few hours later in the plant of The American Tobacco Company. It passes from the pastoral atmosphere of the seventeenth century into the modern bustle and precision of the twentieth in less than a day.

Yet for all the puffing of locomotives, the rumble of giant motor trucks, and the whirr of machinery, one still feels the magic of tobacco. The aromatic fragrance lingers here just as it does in barn and sales warehouse.

The golden leaf is handled gently enough by the people who "make" it in the fields, but the processors, for all their machines, four-storied buildings, white paint and uniformed operatives, handle it with even greater care. They have not only the same anxieties that furrow the brow of the producers, but they show in addition the painstaking craftsmanship of the individual tobacconists of a bygone era.

As that farmer remarked to me when I met him at the door of his barn, the manufacture of a tasty, rich, non-irritating cigarette, that always is the same year after year regardless of crop failures, variations in the quality of annual offerings and all the other hazards of agriculture, is an industrial miracle. None of the old tobacconists who made their blends by hand ever were able to obtain the same remarkable results. The individual craftsman worked with but a few pounds of leaf at a time, while the modern manufacturer handles millions, but despite all of the complexities of mass production, the latter, by close attention to a thousand infinite details, obtains results that are far superior.

Industry did not conquer these details all at once. Manufacturers are still learning new things about tobacco. However, they have adapted successfully to modern factory conditions the fine techniques of the best private blenders, and for the past seventy years, steadily, through greater resources and broader research, they have improved upon them.

The first treatment given the newly arrived shipment of tobacco is known as re-drying. The word is only half descriptive of the process, for it consists not only of drying the leaf again, but remoistening it as well. The idea is to put a carefully measured amount of moisture in the packed tobacco so that it can be aged without danger of spoiling. As the leaf comes from the market, it has such varying amounts of water in the cells that all of it would spoil if it were not treated.

As soon as the great hogsheads are unloaded, therefore, they are rolled into a re-drying unit of the factory. This big, fire-proof, ultra-modern building looks like a complete plant in itself. It is buzzing with the activity of hundreds of people.

The big hogsheads are unpacked on the main floor and the tobacco, still tied in the little bundles, is sent upstairs in the form of cylindrical cakes. Here a corps of women workers take the cakes apart, bundle by bundle, and string the tobacco upon exactly the same kind of sticks used in the curing barns back on the farm.

The loaded sticks are placed upon conveyors which haul them slowly into a long, steam-heated box—the redrying machine. In the near end of this machine, the temperature is up to approximately 200 degrees and here every drop of atmospheric moisture is taken out of the leaf. The tobacco is as dry as tinder before it moves seventy feet through the hot chamber. There-upon it passes along into another compartment of the machine known as a cooling chamber, where fresh air passes through the tobacco and cools it. From here, humidifiers spray a mixture of steam around the tobacco, so that a carefully measured amount of moisture is added.

As the sticks, strung with the bundles of tobacco, come out of the machine, they look as they did when they went in, but now there is no variation at all in the moisture content. In this proper condition, it will keep almost indefinitely.

A crew of men receives the loaded sticks as they leave the re-drying machine—packers who replace the bundles in hogsheads like those in which the shipment was received from the prizeries.

The coopers who reassemble the hogsheads when the tobacco is unpacked and the men who replace in them their burden of properly moistened leaf, work with a rhythm that is delightful to watch. The coopers beat a tune upon the staves as they close the barrels—a tune as measured as the rattle of a military drum. Factory regulations do not require the men to be musical in their work, but the balanced rhythm enables them to make faster progress and, at the same time, to satisfy the longing of every workman for smooth, orderly accomplishment.

Each loaded hogshead contains between 750 and 1,000 pounds of tobacco as the "bull gang," a team of strong-backed young men, roll them over to the elevators. Apparently, the size of these great containers was long ago accurately gauged to the ability of a strong man to roll them from place to place. There was a time, too, when farmers used similar hogsheads to haul their tobacco to market. The containers were reinforced by extra hoops to stand the wear and tear of the road, and an axle was passed through the center line and mounted on a frame. An ox then was hitched to the hogshead and it was rolled on to its destination. There are people still living who remember when farmers brought their tobacco down to the city in these traveling hogsheads.

The tobacco is moved from the re-drying plant to the modern storage sheds which occupy many, many acres of ground nearby. The sheds are rain-proof, yet they are open to the air on all sides.

Here the hogsheads of leaf which we saw auctioned two days before may rest for as long as three years.

Three years! Millions of pounds of tobacco in idleness, millions of dollars in capital tied up, because all of the ingenuity of modern industry has been unable to find a substitute for the all important treatment that time gives tobacco!

Something that still is very mysterious, yet of vital importance, happens to the tobacco during those long months in the storage sheds. A delicate fermentation takes place in the Spring and again in the Fall as the air flows in around the porous hogsheads. The leaf, in tobacco vernacular "sweats." Before it goes into Lucky Strike cigarettes, it must have at least two "sweats," and plenty of rest. Like vintage wine, it is worth all the time that is given it.

There is a great deal of tobacco in these sheds. As the new purchases are trucked into place, other hogsheads, which contain properly aged leaf, are rolled on to the next step in the chain of production.

This is the stemming process. The leaves have heavy fibrous stems which must be removed before the tobacco goes to the main unit of the cigarette plant.

On its way to the stemming machines, Lucky Strike leaf undergoes its first blending, although at this stage the Bright, the Burley and the Mary-land are all blended individually and not mixed together. Assembled here are hogsheads of mature tobacco representing every section of the growing area. If Bright tobacco is being stemmed, the so-called Old Belt of Virginia and North Carolina, the Middle Belt of North Carolina, and eastern North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, are all represented. A bit from each hogshead is inspected and placed simultaneously on the conveyor by a group of women, and so the produce of five states is mingled thoroughly. The tobacco is the yield of several growing seasons also. Some is two years old, some considerably older, but all of it is of the same high grade and light texture. The mixture on the conveyor, therefore, runs to a standard that is most important in maintaining, day after day and year after year, a uniform quality. Burley tobacco, which comes mainly from Kentucky and Tennessee, and Maryland tobacco, from north of the Potomac, are stemmed and subjected to their first blending in the same fashion.

The tobacco is first put in condition for stemming and then the machines untie the bundles, smooth out the leaves and strip away the tough stems. A crew of nimble-fingered women inspect the leaves again as they enter the machine, and take out any that are not of the best quality. As they pass through to the other side and the stems are removed, another crew watches and removes any leaves that are not thoroughly stripped by the apparatus. A ceaseless watch for stems continues throughout subsequent processes, for it is most difficult to remove from tobacco, even by hand, all of the fibrous parts of the big leaves.

Another machine now takes the processed leaves, a great metal container about 25 feet in diameter with a dome that extends up through the ceiling to the roof. This is called "the cyclone." A glance within explains its name, for as the tobacco flows into it, a mighty blast of air throws the leaf high up toward the dome and, like a whirlwind, blows out all the dust. At the top of the cyclone is a broad valve through which the dust escapes like smoke.

Cleaned, and thoroughly mixed, the tobacco falls down to the base of the machine, and proceeds on its way, ready for conversion into cigarettes.

The stemmeries which feed the Lucky Strike factories are very different from most plants of this kind because the air is conditioned. Old-fashioned stemming plants are dusty, uncomfortable places, but here all of the tobacco is kept in normal condition while it is being worked, and the dust is carried off. Conditioning the air also prevents the loss of quantities of tobacco which on hot, dry days would crumble away.



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