Once iconic American symbols, tobacco farms are gradually disappearing. It is difficult for many people to lament the loss of a crop that has come to symbolize addiction, disease, and corporate deception; yet, in Kentucky, the plant has played an important role in economic development and prosperity. Burley tobacco—a light, air-cured variety used in cigarette production—has long been the Commonwealth’s largest cash crop and an important aspect of regional identity, along with bourbon, bluegrass music, and Thoroughbred horses.
“The importance of burley tobacco, which had become dominant in Kentucky as it spread to the central region, grew as chewing tobacco became the most widespread method of consumption in the United States because burley was the primary ingredient. . . The move to ‘chaw’ during the first half of the nineteenth century was fostered in large part by the desire on the part of Americans to separate themselves from what were seen as elite and effeminate European ways. As the masculine hero became the frontiersman, a ‘man of manly independence,’ and the ‘common man’ ‘reigned supreme,’ chewing spread up the class ladder. Chewing tobacco was the ‘only one of our tobacco customs which did not originate in the conscious imitation of European manners.”—From Burley: Kentucky Tobacco in a New Century
Early Tobacco History
3000 B.C.E.—Native Americans smoked it in many situations, from rituals to diplomatic meetings, as well as for medicinal purposes and personal enjoyment.
1492—Christopher Columbus first observes its use by Native Americans, “. . .although the first gift of tobacco he received was said to have been thrown overboard since he and his crew did not know what it was or what to do with it.”
16th century—Tobacco spreads throughout the world and by the early 17th century, Spain was the largest producer for trade. During this time, England becomes a major consumer and sought “cultivation [of tobacco] under English control. . .in order to avoid importation costs.”
1612—Jamestown settlement plants first tobacco crop with success, ensuring the settlement’s shaky future. By 1664 the colonies were exporting 24 million pounds of tobacco to England.
1784—John Ferdinand Smyth publishes a book based on his travels in America, including a description of tobacco-growing: “This description is in many ways consistent with methods of tobacco production either as they exist today. . .This includes vernacular language that remains in use today. . .”
19th century—Tobacco is grown in Kentucky, but the state is unable to become a major producer until more efficient transportation becomes available to the region in the 1830s.
1860s—The American Civil War indirectly raises Kentucky’s status as a tobacco producer: “Because Kentucky was a border state, it was largely spared the structural devastation of states that had joined the Confederacy.”