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"It's Toasted" - The Story Of Luck Strike

( Originally Published 1938 )

When the tobacco reaches the main plant from the stemmery, another blending takes place immediately. Here for the first time the Bright, flue-cured leaf is blended with the Turkish, and the air-cured Burley meets the darker Maryland.

Burley, Bright, Turkish and Maryland—all four are representative of three or more seasons, of hundreds of different growing areas, of thousands of different farms. It is only by making the most extensive cross section of entire regions and crops that an adequate standard can be maintained day after day and year after year.

Hundreds of years of smoking, however, have shown that no matter how carefully tobacco is grown and cured, all of it has irritant properties. Tobacconists for many generations have tried various methods of removing the harshness. They have besought the farmers to make more careful selection of types. They have tried many different methods of curing. Thousands of different blends, hundreds of different processes, have figured in their experiments.

The American Tobacco Company has been a leader in this research. It has developed the now famous "Toasting Process" which, to a great degree, is responsible for the smoothness and gentleness of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Other processors have tried the heat treatment of tobacco but none has attained the success that has made Luckies such a favorite with the modern smoker.

"Toasting" is a complicated process which involves a number of different steps in manufacture, and to describe it in detail would require more technical knowledge than an ordinary newspaper man is blessed with. Three steps in the process impressed me particularly — the higher heat treatment given the tobacco, the "bulking", and the use of the ultraviolet ray. The toasting process seemed to me to be a mod-ern scientific process founded on the fundamental principles of tobacco lore. I will give you a layman's slant on it.

The tobacco passes along conveyors to a series of large chambers, empty save for a long battery of heaters. Spread evenly over a moving belt, the leaves travel slowly through heat, higher by many degrees than that which is usual in cigarette manufacture. At intervals are dials watched by alert young men who peer into the hot depths of the machines, turn cranks and, now and then, open little doors to look at the leaf that is passing through.

The heat is scientifically controlled by delicate instruments under the watchful eye of experienced supervisors so that the flavor of the leaf will not be impaired. An accurate moisture control is maintained over the tobacco during this entire process. The carefully supervised treatment distills from the leaf irritant oils which are present in all kinds of tobacco. Exhaust fans circulate the air and, in turn, are connected with flues which conduct these irritating substances to condensers located outside the building, where they are processed and later sold to the chemical industries.

I asked the foreman who showed me the toasting process if there were any secret to it.

"I suppose there are more secrets in the heat treatment," he replied, "than in any of the other things we do in producing our cigarette, but it would take some of our research men about a year to explain them all. You see we have a method all our own. Our toasting process is related closely to our entire chain of production—to the selection, the blending—everything. It is, naturally, a closely guarded process. It is the result of years spent in research to develop a light smoke, a cigarette that will be gentle on the throat."

The foreman examined a chart that was being made by an inked needle on a card, and turned a dial gently.

"You see," he continued, "tobacco is not an ordinary raw material like iron or sand or pulp-wood. It is not exactly temperamental, I guess, but you can't dump it into a hopper and run it through and have it turn out right. You've got to handle it carefully. You can't hurry it or take any short cuts. You can't forget it, neglect it, for a second. In one sense tobacco is like a high strung thoroughbred colt. Given complete and careful attention it will turn into a splendid finished product you can be proud to own, but if any defect is permitted to develop during this tedious process, it is ruined. Maybe that is why men love tobacco so; because like a thorough-bred, it is troublesome, yet it always repays every ounce of effort. We think our Lucky Strike blend is worth every bit of effort we put into it."

The enthusiasm of this man and of the others I met in the factory was unique. All of them seemed to be as relaxed as children engaged in a fascinating, familiar game. Over each machine and in every office and storage room in the plant was a placard with the inscription—"Quality of Product is Essential to Continuing Success." All the workers were under discipline, but it seemed to be the self imposed discipline of community life rather than the driving grind of machine-age production. There was none of the strain, the tension, that is noticeable in so many modern factories.

The plant manager seemed to know most of the 1,500 workers in the factory by name. The individuals at the machines and conveyors, at the bins and mixers, at the dials and the testing desks all were the same, friendly kind of people I had met in the rural tobacco markets a few days before. They had the same kind of smile and handclasp. They enjoyed the same stories. They glowed with the same fervent energy. They were tobacco people of the old school.

As the leaf comes out of the heating and remoistening chambers, it again is blended carefully and here the four types—Burley, Maryland, Bright and Turkish—are for the first time mixed into one mass of fragrant leaf. This mixing takes place in giant copper drums which take in several hundred pounds at a time as it comes from the conveyors. It would be impossible for the best trained human hands to give the leaf as thorough a mingling as do these brightly polished containers.

At these drums I noticed chemists at work taking samples here and there for laboratory test. They measure the moisture to be sure that the leaf enters the machine in exactly the proper condition. They check the quality of the entire lot so that if the slightest error has been made in the processing thus far, the tobacco may be discarded and the trouble corrected. All through the factory these technicians are at work. Upon their watchfulness, no less than upon the competence of the engineers and mechanics who tend the thousands of gauges and check the charts, does the quality of the finished product depend.

After the tobacco comes out of the polished mixing drums, it is "bulked"—piled together-in a large air-conditioned room. The great mass of leaf is left in this chamber for twenty-four hours or more.

This "bulking" is a mystery of the tobacco business. No layman can explain exactly why it is vitally necessary to dam up the flow of leaf through the factory at this stage. The practice is costly and it is troublesome. Yet experience has shown that unless it is done the cigarette is not as good as it should be.

A subtle change that affects the entire blend takes place in the bulking room. The tobacco does not ferment as it did during its years in the storage warehouses. However, something hap-pens to it—something that all the ingenuity of thousands of chemists has not been able to hasten. The essential oils in the product get together. Millions of leaves start to exchange and share with each other the fragrance that they brought with them from the fields. No cargo of spices that ever came from the Indies is as richly aromatic as this bulking chamber. Magic seems to have touched it.

While tons of tobacco are flowing into one end of this room, a like quantity that has remained there for the required time is being withdrawn. This properly conditioned leaf proceeds then to the shredding machines, whose sharp knives cut the tobacco into slender ribbons.

Why is it not cut before so it might be more readily handled? I don't know, but I was told that it must be shredded at exactly the proper time—no sooner, no later. At this stage, too, the moisture-content is reduced a bit.

It moves on next to strange machines that I have seen in no other tobacco factory. These are copper drums larger than the mixers, the interiors of which are equipped with batteries of arc lamps whose brilliant glow may be viewed only through dark glass.

This is the ultraviolet ray machine.

The men working here wear helmets as did medieval warriors. My guide gave me a helmet and for a moment I stared into the brilliant depths of the container. The tobacco was being turned gently so that the ultraviolet light touched every shredded particle.

"Artificial sunshine," said he.


"It tones up the tobacco," he replied. "You know sunshine mellows, and these machines really expose the tobacco to concentrated sun-shine."

The Ultra Violet Ray, with which the tobacco is treated in another stage of the toasting process, cannot be viewed with the naked eye. The men whose responsibility it is to supervise this operation must wear masks to protect their eyes against the powerful rays,

Out of the ultraviolet machine with every particle irradiated, the tobacco is purified and thus made ready for its final rest before manufacture into cigarettes. It is placed in boxes called "Saratogas" and moved to an air-conditioned room where it remains approximately eight days.

Here the fragrant oils of the tobacco further merge and the carefully controlled air takes off surplus moisture so that all of the tobacco reaches exactly the same condition.

"Eight Days!"

"Yes," said my guide ruefully, "eight days. As I told you before, you cannot hurry tobacco. Father Time is a firm taskmaster in this business. He has his finger on it from the time it leaves the seed bed and we cannot move a peg at any stage until he says the word. Time and tobacco laugh at machine-age haste."

This is Father Time's last laugh, however. From the time the tobacco leaves the resting room—this final eight-day rest in a process that has included more than two years in storage before it even enters the factory—it is caught up in the whirl of high-speed production at its best.

The gigantic plant takes its precious ingredient now as though impatient because it has had to wait so long, and hurries it for a final blending to a circular conveyor that looks like a merry-go-round. Samples from each Saratoga are shaken out and mixed with the contents of every other one. The tobacco then is placed in other movable bins called "trolleys," and away it goes to the cigarette-making machines.

Here it is now, speeding along, and it is as perfect a cigarette mixture as the ingenuity of the manufacturer has been able to devise. To lift a double handful from the moving tray and sniff it is a sensory delight. No longer is it a collection of the finest tobaccos—it is a single integrated product. By close examination you can see tiny strips of orange-colored Bright, golden shreds of Turkish, and the somewhat browner Burley and Maryland, but they are all together now—completely, perfectly merged.

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