Information about Tobacco and Harvesting Tobacco
Cultivation of Tobacco in the 18th Century:
Tobacco seed is as fine as dust, so it must be mixed with dirt to allow even sowing. The seed is sown in a small “tobacco patch” in March. Lettuce seed is sown with the tobacco seed and a border of mustard is sown around the outside of the patch. Eighteenth century farmers believed that sowing lettuce and mustard with the tobacco would distract flies and worms from eating the young tobacco plants.
While the tobacco is beginning to grow in the patch, the fields must be prepared for it. Hilling hoes are used to raise small mounds of dirt or “hills” in neat rows throughout the field. By raising hills, the fields do not have to be plowed, which allows farmers to raise tobacco on hillsides and in fields that are not completely cleared of stumps and fallen trees. This is useful because tobacco depletes soil of nutrients within 4 – 7 years, and so a new field must be cleared for it every few years. Hills also hold in moisture and allow for good drainage.
Once the tobacco has grown to about six inches high, usually around mid-May, it is transplanted to the field. During or after a good rain, when the soil is wet, the young tobacco plants are carefully pulled from the patch and one plant is placed at the top of each hill in the field. Now the tobacco must be constantly tended until it is ready to harvest. As the plants grow bigger, they must be “primed,” “suckered” and “topped.” Priming is pulling off the lower leaves of the plant when they begin to turn yellow and wither. Suckering is pulling off new buds that form on the main stalk to prevent the plant from branching out. Topping is breaking off the top part of the plant to prevent it from flowering and going to seed (three or four plants are allowed to flower and go to seed so there will be seed for planting next year’s crop). Priming, suckering and topping are done to make the plant have bigger, broader leaves. All the while, the plants must be kept free of tobacco wormsthat would eat and destroy the crop. Turkeys are herded through the field to help pick the worms off the plants.
The plants are ready to harvest when the leaves are long, broad, deep green and beginning to crinkle. The plants are cut with a knife, slit up the middle of the stalk and laid in the sun for a couple of hours to wilt. Then they are gathered up, placed on “tobacco sticks” and hung in the tobacco house to cure for several weeks.
The leaves are cured when they have turned brown and leathery. The cured leaves are stripped from the stalk, the thick vein that runs down the middle of each leaf is stripped off, and the leaves are tied into bundles of 8 – 10 leaves. These bundles are called hands of tobacco. The hands are then packed or prized into hogshead barrels for shipment to the tobacco warehouse.
Tobacco and the Economy:
Everyone was required by law to take their tobacco to the nearest tobacco warehouse to be inspected by government appointed inspectors. The reason the government required tobacco to be inspected was to make sure that only high quality Virginia tobacco got shipped to Europe, so the price for it would stay high. In spite of this fact, the price of tobacco was falling in the early 1770s. It was only worth 2.5 – 3 pence per pound in the early 1770s, while it had been worth as much as 5 pence per pound in the 1760s. Because wheat was fetching a high price in the early 1770s and required much less labor to grow, many farmers were beginning to grow more wheat and less tobacco for their cash crop.
Our farm family grows tobacco as their main cash crop, but grows wheat as well. The nearest tobacco warehouse in the 18th century was the Falls Warehouse on the Little Falls of the Potomac, about two miles down river from us. We say our farm family can raise 1000 – 1200 pounds of tobacco per year. Five hundred pounds if it go to pay the annual rent to Philip Ludwell Lee; another 100 pound or so go toward tithes to the church (required by law) and taxes; and whatever is left the family will use to buy things such as salt, spices, cloth, shoes and metal tools.
Virtues of the Tobacco Plant:
Tobacco was used in a variety of home remedies in the 18th century for ailments such as headaches, “dry – gripes” (blocked intestines) and other troubles of the digestive system, “piles” (hemmaroids), epilepsy or the “falling sickness,” worms in the gut, wounds and burns to name a few. Even then people recognized that the tobacco plant is quite powerful and can be harmful to the body, so they knew not to use tobacco remedies on the elderly, very young or weak-bodied. Here are a couple of remedies the farm family makes: (Note: do not try any of these yourself!)
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