The Cigarette Machines
( Originally Published 1938 )
Tobacco is converted into cigarettes in four rooms of the Richmond factory at the incredible rate of 10,000,000 cigarettes per hour.
A cigarette-making machine is not much larger than an upright piano. Scores of them are lined up in orderly ranks along the floor. On the keyboard side is a uniformed young lady, the catcher, who busily takes the white tubes as they emerge and places them in a rack at about the position where her music sheets should be. She examines the cigarettes as they jump into the tray.
Attending the machine is a young man—the operator—whose duty it is to keep the complicated apparatus in running order. He sees that the trolley of tobacco unloads its contents properly, watches the roll of white paper that also is feeding the interior, and now and then raises a lid to peer down at the tobacco.
Inside the machine is quite a clattering, and you notice that the tobacco is being violently agitated by little paddle wheels. This throws out fine bits of stem called "slivers" that do not belong in the mixture.
At the bottom of the interior you see the flat band of pure white paper passing. As it moves, a carefully regulated quantity of tobacco drops gently upon the band. A few inches further this band of paper begins to fold around the tobacco to make a cigarette.
A dozen or more things now are happening at once. A little printer is stamping the famous "Lucky Strike" circle at intervals upon the paper. One rim of the band is being touched with a casein paste, made from milk. It is being rolled, pasted together to form a cigarette more than a yard long. And finally, as the long cigarette hurries through, it is cut into lengths 70 millimeters or 2 3/4 inches long. This self-sharpening knife is adjusted so that it cuts the tube at right angles despite the rapidity with which the big cigarette is moving through.
Another young lady in uniform, the inspectress, wheels a tray along and periodically, like the Goddess of Justice, with a set of balances weighs a counted lot of cigarettes from the rap-idly filling rack.
The tiniest variation in weight means that the cigarette machine needs adjustment and if necessary it is stopped and overhauled at once. One of the most vital elements of a good cigarette is the amount of tobacco in each individual unit. A cigarette that is packed too tightly is as bad as one that is too loose. A rigid standard must be maintained here as well as in previous stages of manufacture. Quality cannot be sacrificed to speed.
While the cigarettes pour from the machine, the catcher piles them before her, eyes busy. Now and then she removes one or several, and throws them into the discard. A defect in the paper, a bit of stem that has escaped other watchful eyes, or something else may spoil a cigarette here or there. The remarkable thing is that so many thousands of them come from the machine in such perfect condition.
As the catcher's rack is filled, inspected, and then reinspected by the examiner, it is taken a few steps to another machine.
While less delicate than the cigarette-maker, this other one also performs many amazing functions at once. Cigarettes are fed into one end of it and tinfoil, paper and revenue stamps into the other, and an instant later, a complete pack of Luckies emerges.
One of the most unusual devices in this packing machine is a little automatic "detector." As the paper and foil are rolled to make a pack of twenty cigarettes, twenty metal fingers reach out and touch the ends of each. If there is a defect in any single cigarette, a light flashes and a little arm a second later, throws the whole pack into the discard.
The final function discharged by this almost human machine is to affix the Federal revenue stamp across the top of every perfect pack. These revenue stamps cost the manufacturer six cents each.
Yes, every twenty cigarettes bears a tax of six cents. It is one of the oldest excise taxes now extant, one of the first sales taxes levied in America. Uncle Sam collects more money on a pack of cigarettes than the combined profit of farmer, warehouseman, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer.
A separate machine seals the packages in an overcoat of airtight, moisture-proof cellophane, a jacket that makes it possible to ship Luckies to the ends of the earth in perfect condition. Prior to the' development of this transparent, paper-like substance made from cotton and wood pulp, tobacconists depended largely upon tinfoil to keep the cigarettes in condition during sale. Tinfoil still is considered indispensable, but the new outer wrapper helps a great deal.
Incidentally the care with which tobacco manufacturers wrap their cigarettes gives employment to thousands of workers in other industries, some of them not far from The American Tobacco Company's main plants.
The cigarettes leave the factory almost immediately after they emerge from the last machine. Deft women pack them in their cartons and the cartons in turn are stowed away in boxes containing fifty cartons, or 10,000 cigarettes. By rail and truck, by ship and by air, they then are shipped to the four corners of America and to the ends of the earth.
On leaving the factory of The American Tobacco Company a visitor remembers the tobacco rather than the machinery. In the plant he has seen modern industry at its best. The workers are healthier, happier, less liable to accidents than the average man on the street. The cafeteria has the highest rating offered by the inspectors of the health department. The machine shop is a magnificent place where new equipment is invented while old machinery is re-paired. The offices, where men and women handle the complexities of management and distribution, are furiously busy, too. Yet every-where within this hive of human bees, a visitor thinks and breathes tobacco.
Truly the story of Lucky Strike is an amazing blend of industry and romance, of the tradition of tobacco and the precision of modern science, of a magic product and of the men who handle it.
Soil and sunshine did their part to aid these artists with their golden leaves. Careful agriculture and selection helped. Science with its toasting ovens and its ultraviolet rays contributed much. Machinery and regulated air sped the process. But the ultimate secret of the product's gentle excellence lies in three centuries of human experience and skill.
John Rolfe's enthusiasm for tobacco made him forget the treasures of the Spanish Main and become a stout, home-loving planter. Other adventurers followed him to find excitement in this product of a new and dangerous land. And so tobacco played a major role in the development of our country.
With the smoke of a Lucky Strike curling up-ward, a man can dream of Pocahontas in her garden at Varina, of settlers farming with holstered pistols on the handles of their ploughs, of early craftsmen at work upon the first rude blends, of Nicot teaching the courtiers of Catherine de Medici the pleasures of the Indian plant —and then of countless men whose art and labor improved the leaf until it became the greatest solace of a troubled world.