United States History 17A

Tobacco Culture

Adapted from U.B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, (1918) 
   Unlike corn, for example, the seeds of which could be dropped by hand in the field and the mature plants harvested in three months time, tobacco seeds were too expensive to risk planting in this way and too small for this kind of planting to be effective. (Tobacco seeds are about the size of finely ground pepper. About ten thousand of them will fit into a teaspoon).
   Tobacco seeds had to be sown in late winter or early spring in a special bed of deep forest mold covered with wood ashes and then tended until they were about the length of and adult's index finger. The young plants then were uprooted carefully from their beds and planted in the fields, each on its own hill about three or four feet apart. This was usually done during or just after an April, May or June rain. An experienced field hand could transplant them at the rate of several thousand in a single day. This task had to completed before the ground became dry enough to endanger the young seedlings' lives.
   After the transplanting, the fields were plowed and hoed continuously to prevent the growth of weeds. After a rain, the plants that had died were replaced. When the first flower bud appeared, the plant was topped so that only a few choice leaves were left growing on the stalk. As the plant grew, any suckers growing at the base of the stalk had to be pulled off. And the underside of every leaf had to be examined on a regular schedule for horn-worms. Horn-worm infestations could come at any time, but they usually came in two gluts -- one when the plants were half grown, the other when they were nearly ready for harvest. If not discovered immediately , a whole field could be infected in only a few days.
   When the leaves of the crop began to turn yellow, the stalks were cut off close to the ground, and, after they had wilted, were carried to a well-ventilated tobacco barn and hung upside down for curing. Each stalk hung at the proper distance from its neighbor, attached to wooden lath strips laid perpendicular on the roof joists. The crop stayed in this barn for several months, with the windows open in dry weather and closed in wet. When the weather was moist enough to make the leaves pliable, some slaves lowered the stalks to the floor, where the rest of the group, working in threes, stripped the leaves off the stalks. One took off the rejected leaves, or culls, another stripped the best, or bright leaves, and another the leaves with dull color. Each then bound his takings into "hands" of about a quarter of a pound each and sorted them into piles.
   Next came the packing or prizing stage, during which a barefoot man inside a large barrel, or hogshead, laid the sorted bundles of leaves in rows, tramping them down gently. Then a second hogshead, without a bottom, was set on top of the first and filled in the same way, and, then, perhaps even a third would be filled in a similar manner. Finally, the whole stack was put under blocks and levers and the contents of all three hogsheads compressed into the one at the bottom. A top was then nailed in place, and the hogshead rolled down to a nearby river where a waiting ship took it to market, probably in England. Often a crop was not cured enough for prizing until the next crop had been planted. Hence the need to have enough resources to survive this long growing process until the tobacco crop could be sold.

Answer the following questions
16. What three things did one need to grow tobacco successfully in the Chesapeake?
17. How long could it take before a profit might be realized from planting tobacco?
18. Why couldn't tobacco seeds be sown directly in the fields?
19. How many tobacco seeds will fit into a teaspoon?
20. How many tobacco plants could be transplanted in a single day by an experienced hand?
21. Why were tobacco plants topped?
22. What could infect a whole field within a few days?
23. Where and for how long did the curing process take place?
24. What were the best and worst leaves called?
25. What was a hogshead?  What was prizing? How was the cured tobacco sent to market?
26. Often a tobacco crop was not cured for prizing until ___ ?

After you have finished the first assignment page, you may want to rent the movie, Shakespeare in Love.  See if you can identify the glaring historical error concerning the reference to tobacco plantations in Virginia?


Return to Study Guide #1




Revised January 24, 2008
by Tom Gallup, e-mail address: tom_gallup@westvalley.edu
West Valley College