A century ago Rochester played a major role in the modern processing of tobacco. The indigenous weed was used by Native Americans for ceremonial and medicinal purposes, but by the 17th century its addictive powers spread its everyday use through the American colonies and Europe.
King James I of England found it noxious and "dangerous to the lungs," but its commercial value was useful to a growing empire. It was cultivated with slave labor in the Southern coastal colonies and spread inland. Governments tapped its use for regular and "sin" taxes. 18th century inhaling of powdered tobacco, or "snuff," gave way in the 19th to plug chewing and to pipes and cigars. In the 20th these were swept aside by cigarettes.
Chewing was so widespread that foreign travelers noted spit-polluted public accommodations. Manual laborers, and baseball players, used it because it left their hands free.
Cheap clay pipes preceded meershaums, tobacco jars and pouches, pipe cleaners, tampers, and gougers. Corncobs democratized the habit.
Cigars, stogies or artfully blended elegance, brought in their wake humidors, tip cutters, and lighters.
As was made clear by the Strong Museum exhibit Altered States, for many 19th century Americans, "Smoking, like drinking, was a male prerogative ritualized at formal dinners when ladies adjourned after dessert, leaving men to smoke cigars and sip brandies."
Rochester has been part of this whole story. In 1829, an Anti-Tobacco Society was launched, with little success. By mid-century "numerous cigar makers, working in small shops, dominated the industry." By 1870 more than 300 workers were employed, most by six city firms producing chewing tobacco.
William S. Kimball entered the business and in 1869, according to Blake McKelvey, "A patent bailer ... for the quick packaging of small quantities of smoking and chewing tobacco, ...prompt[ed] enlargement of his shop and the employment of 50 hands ... The principal drawback ... seemed to be the tobacco tax by which revenue officers collected $223,199 in Rochester for the latter half of 1871 ... [W]hen his facilities east of the river were outgrown, he acquired the island on the opposite bank [where the War Memorial now stands] ... for a new factory constructed in 1881."
In the 1880s the Kimball tobacco factory employed girls working at piece-rate. Again, McKelvey: "Giant strides followed the invention of a cigarette cutting machine on which a number of patents were secured by Oscar W. Allison of Rochester...Kimball, who supplied much of the capital and later became president of the Allison Machine Company, organized to produce and control these machines, was among the first in America to embark on the large-scale manufacture of cigarettes."
A Virginian, cited in the Strong Museum exhibit, had "developed a machine that rolled 70,000 cigarettes a day, the work of forty hand rollers. Later [versions] produced 120,000 cigarettes a day. Increased production meant that manufacturers needed more tobacco to process—and more customers. Men, daring women, and young boys increasingly reached for cigarettes, which delivered a standardized dose of nicotine. Because nicotine is addictive, all tobacco products had a built-in market."
In Rochester, "As the market expanded, the chewing and cut tobacco trade was abandoned and the new [Kimball] factory was soon devoted entirely to the production of cigarettes. By March, 1883, his eight hundred hands, the largest factory force in the city, were turning out products valued a $1,200,000 a year. S. F. Hess, inventor of an improved bailer, took over the plug and smoking tobacco trade, expanding his force to three hundred employees."
In 1880 Rochester produced 8.6 million cigars, as 91.5 million cigarettes rolled off assembly lines worked by women and girls. Soon these local "Carmens" were producing a million cigarettes a day, earn-
ing two to eleven dollars a week, better pay than was available for unskilled work elsewhere. As traditionally lower-paid women replaced men, pay and working hours became issues. Half-day Saturdays were granted to head off week-long eight-hour days. The cigar makers union won the shorter day but fought a rearguard action against mechanization.
Kimball's "vigorous advertising program included signs painted on barns and factories and show cards for still wider use. The leading brands, 'Vanity Fair,' 'Peerless,' 'Three Kings,' and 'Old Gold' were entered at many area and international expositions winning numerous prizes."
He "counteracted] the doubts [of] certain Victorian leaders of society...regarding his product. His imposing new factory was...more tastefully designed than any other structure of the period... [and] was provided with a lofty and massive smokestack to carry the fumes high above the city. [Atop the smokestack was] a twenty-one foot statue of Mercury, destined to become Rochester's favorite skyline symbol..." His impressive new Third Ward mansion, art gallery, and nationally known orchids also helped.
He joined "H. H. Warner [the local patent medicine tycoon] in the drive for a Chamber of Commerce, of which he became second president. As president of the Chamber he led a vigorous program to bring new industries to Rochester, [and].. .merge[d].. .his own firm with the American Tobacco Company in 1890..." In 1905, a few years after Kimball's death, the parent company that he had helped to organize "removed the key machinery invented in Rochester two decades before." The Kimball tobacco factory was appropriated by a shirt and collar manufacturer. It later became a City Hall Annex, before being razed for the War Memorial. Mercury, after years in storage, now strides the sky across Broad Street atop Lawyer's Cooperative Publishing Company.
© 1994, Robert G. Koch