Tobacco’s World of Racial Capitalism: A Conversation with Nan Enstad

A woman and man tie leaves of tobacco together with a return address for the British-American Tobacco Company in Shanghai and Chinese characters superimposed over them.

You can’t just drop a bright leaf tobacco seed in the ground and start counting your profits. From its emergence in the middle of the 19th century, bright leaf tobacco has demanded that farmers who raise it master a complicated set of environmental, cultural, and technological systems.  The rise of the cigarette as the globe’s dominant form of consumer tobacco was equally full of twists and turns, by no means inevitable.  After the Civil War, many southern tobacco farmers—both black and white—knew how to grow bright leaf, and many tobacco companies began dabbling in cigarette manufacturing.  But it was only the white farmers who, when small producers were put out of business by James B. Duke’s American Tobacco Company, were welcomed into the consortium’s white-collar ranks. From those positions, they helped make bright leaf and cigarettes into international commodities.  During Reconstruction and Jim Crow, such a story seems familiar. But, as historian Nan Enstad has discovered, what happened next is anything but.

The cover of the book "Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism" by Nan Enstad, featuring a painting of two Chinese women dressed in fancy clothing sharing a cigarette.In her new book, Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism (to be released later this month by University of Chicago Press), Nan Enstad follows these Jim Crow-era white tobacco company managers as American tobacco expanded into China, carrying with them tobacco seeds, leaves, and cigarettes, as well as the expertise to transform one into the next. But rather than spin another story of the advance of Western culture and modernity, Enstad uncovers a bi-directional flow of agricultural and business knowledge.  To flesh out this history she explores Shanghai cabarets and rural North Carolina baseball diamonds, East Asian factories and fields in the American South.  Together, Americans and Chinese helped produce modern capitalism in concert with a global cast of characters that was multiracial, cross-class, and human and nonhuman.  In both China and North Carolina, cigarettes presented a world of hazards and possibilities.

Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Drew Swanson: Historians have their own pasts and—especially since I have a past that connects to tobacco—I’m curious about what lured you into this project.

Nan Enstad: It really came from living in Greensboro, North Carolina, where my first job as a professor was. I was there in the 1990s, when the tobacco industry was crashing and factories were closing. I was also seeing that my students smoked at a much higher rate than in my home state of Minnesota. I noticed a different smoking culture in town as well, and I just became intrigued by the history of smoking and of tobacco. My image of smokers in the in the 1920s and 30s was sort of the Great Gatsby and flappers— a glamorous, New York City culture. But I realized that there was another history of smoking that was working-class, white and black, and I wanted to explore that.

I started by going up to the town of Reidsville, North Carolina. It’s a tiny town of about 8,000 people and it has a massive American Tobacco factory that employed thousands of people and really dwarfs the town. I convinced a friend, Corey Graves, to do some interviews with me, and we drove up and went to old-folks homes and said we’re interested in talking to anybody who worked at American Tobacco. The whole project unfolded from there. I discovered that Reidsville was connected to China via a network of white southern corporate managers. Also flowing between China and the U.S. on this transnational network were cigarettes, bright leaf tobacco, bright leaf seeds, many kinds of agricultural knowledge, and Jim Crow management methods for farm, factory and domestic workers. I became fascinated by how human and nonhuman actors influenced this transformative economic development.

A realistic painting of tobacco picking, with (left to right) a woman holding a bunch of tobacco leaves under her right arm, two men loading leaves into a crate, a boy on a white mule watching them, and a shiftless man picking leaves off a plant. In the background, two mules pull of wagon a leaves in front of a log shed.

Nan Enstad began her research in the small North Carolina town of Reidsville, where the mural “Tobacco,” adorns a wall of the post office. Painted by Gordon Samstag, 1937.

DS: The part of the story of cigarettes that we often hear is all about James B. Duke and the monopolistic power of the American Tobacco Company. Can you tell listeners how we’ve gotten that story wrong?

NE: My project went from a story about the culture of smoking to a cultural analysis of the corporation. I became convinced that we have only begun to question how neoclassical economics has shaped the way that we tell stories about political economy and empire. A lot of the hype about the power of Duke that has been ensconced in history came from boosters and biographers and business historians, some of whom were being paid by the tobacco companies. So there’s an inflated sense of power.

DS: It makes me think of that statue of Duke on Duke’s campus with the chapel there in the background.

A dark statue of a man standing and holding his lapel with his left hand in front of a gothic stone tower bathed in sunlight.

The statue of tobacco magnate James B. Duke in front of Duke Chapel, where he and his family are interred, on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Carved by Charles Keck in 1935. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

NE: Right. It’s almost a sort of religious iconography. Duke and his brothers and his father are buried in Duke Chapel. They are the patron saints of Duke University—as a cultural historian, that’s just low-hanging fruit.

But when I looked back into the history Duke’s rise to power, I kept coming across anomalies in the story that we’ve been telling for 50 years and that is in the AP U.S. History curriculum. Duke supposedly innovated with the cigarette machine while his stodgy, old-fashioned competitors were still making handmade cigarettes, and that allowed him to drop prices and capture the market and force his competitors to merge with him into the American Tobacco Company.

That story is just patently false. Some of the innovations that were attributed to Duke happened before his company even started making cigarettes. The mythos of corporate power was so entrenched and seemed so natural to people that they hadn’t gone back to look. But, for example, Lewis Ginter went into cigarettes earlier than Duke and was responsible for marketing them in London and creating the first overseas market for bright leaf cigarettes, which is virtually always attributed to Duke.

There’s an even larger story about how we presume corporate power and how we talk about Western primacy in the globe, and the coming of the modern world. Cigarette companies are considered the epitome of the story of vertical and horizontal integration, and the expansion from an American product to a global product. But when you actually go and look at the history, that story depends on leaving dramatically huge facts out. I wanted to tell a little story about the culture of smoking, but it turns out Reidsville is connected to a very big, global story. Not long after my trip there I ended up booking a ticket to Shanghai.

DS: For all of British-American Tobacco’s plans for China, the Chinese people really shaped their own encounters with cigarettes. What is it about cigarettes that makes this a particularly good product for us to come to grips with this new story of modernity?

NE: One reason is that the global history of cigarettes is not a history of west-to-east movement of products but a bi-directional flow of products. Before the American cigarette was developed, people in the United States were smoking cigarettes—first the Turkish cigarette and then the Egyptian. Turkish tobacco remained even more popular than American-grown tobacco into the early 1920s, after Duke was basically already out of the industry.

Nan Enstad smiles at the camera in a close-up photograph of her head and shoulders against a background of pine trees.

Nan Enstad set out to write a history of working-class smoking culture in rural North Carolina. But she quickly discovered that region was embedded in a global story—and found herself booking a ticket to Shanghai.

DS: Is there a parallel story here to the expansion of cotton that takes place within the British Empire when southern cotton exports were cut off during the Civil War?

NE: Yes. Relli Shechter talks about this in Smoking, Culture, and Economy in the Middle East. Egyptian cotton took off during the Civil War and fueled the Egyptian economy. So there was a lot of money around to invest in the cigarette industry.

DS: Yours is a story of Jim Crow as well, isn’t it?

NE: Definitely. One of my convictions in writing this book is that the corporation is more than the CEO, board of directors, and stockholders. The corporation is also a social organization that emerges within culture. So I really tried hard to look at how the corporation developed on the ground, and that meant looking at how in the U.S. South this cigarette came out the emergence of bright leaf tobacco as a commodity after the Civil War. Your really wonderful book A Golden Weed: Tobacco and Environment in the Piedmont South shows how that emergence was rooted in the Reconstruction and early Jim Crow eras and in struggles over land and labor.

Tobacco is a commodity that has a number of different manufacturing processes. You don’t just plant a seed and then harvest tobacco. It has to be cultivated in a particular way. It depends on finely tuned soils and on a particular curing process. And then you have to find a market for it. Racialization is part and parcel of tobacco culture. So the places that people hold in that culture, whether they be owners or workers or, in the case of bright leaf, a bunch of other roles in the preparation of the commodity possessing the knowledge that’s required to expand it into new regions—all of that is racialized.

The little tobacco factories across Virginia and North Carolina that were owned by partnerships and families were part of the foundation of whites’ recovery from the Civil War in those regions, seizing control of an industry that black people had more knowledge in coming out of slavery. When American Tobacco started taking over, the whites lost virtually all their small companies, but that white ownership class became a white managerial class, which orchestrated the expansion of bright leaf in eastern North Carolina.

What really blew my mind was when I discovered that this white managerial network went to China. They grew bright leaf tobacco, taking with them their environmental ideas about soil and cultivation. But they also started huge factories that made the U.S. factories look tiny. African Americans who grew tobacco and had all of that same agricultural knowledge were kept out of those corporate networks, which is something different than you see in Andrew Zimmerman’s Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South.

DS: One of the things you do really well this book is follows cigarettes as they flow out of the factories and beyond corporate control. Could you tell us a little bit more about how consumers lived cigarette culture in the early 20th century?

One of my guiding principles of this book was that every aspect of the corporation has a social life. We tend to divide off consumption from production in a stark way, almost as a binary. But how I end up looking at consumers is by thinking about how cigarettes got taken up by the culture, how they became popular within particular social scenes that then gave them notoriety and made them a trend. So that’s actually a story about innovation and marketing. We’re just wrong if we think that innovation and marketing just happens on Madison Avenue in some stuffy office.

There are also the ways the cigarettes the corporation are making actually get smoked by people in the corporation itself. Almost everybody, from the highest executives to the workers, smoked cigarettes, and cigarettes were given freely—but not universally—to workers. Smoking the company cigarette was something that positioned you in relationship to the corporation. Recreating how that happened shows that commodity culture isn’t the end of a chain and we have to reach the end of it before we find anybody smoking cigarettes. Of course not. They were smoking all the way along.

The company used cigarettes to create prestige among workers by giving free cigarettes to white workers in the United States and denying them to black workers, creating status and stigma. In China, they gave free cigarettes to male workers and not to female workers. So already the cigarette and cigarette smoking has corporate meanings: it’s about the social means of production. It’s not consumer culture. It’s producer culture.

Every aspect of the corporation has a social life.

Looking at what workers were doing with cigarettes took me to jazz clubs and to baseball fields. British-American Tobacco were selling their cigarettes in these very fancy cabarets where everyone was dancing to jazz. There are stories of Richard Henry Gregory regularly taking a group of corporate newbies, who are maybe 19 or 20 years old, to the jazz club and putting down a bunch of cigarettes on the table with a bunch of dance tickets so they can dance with Chinese and Korean taxi dancers, who are there to dance with the mostly male foreign clientele. So that’s cigarette consumer culture, but it’s not just consumer culture. It’s corporate culture. So the cigarette, the sexual relationship with the low-wage female worker, and the dancing—it all becomes one piece.

In Reidsville, I met these older African Americans who had gone to dances at the armory where they got some of the best jazz music of the 20th century. Duke Ellington and everybody else came through this tiny little town because it was on the railroad (and later Highway 29), and these were people with a steady income. It was all because of the tobacco company. The musicians played to all-black audiences. A few white jazz hounds could go, but they had to stand behind a rope and listen because it was segregated. The musicians were stopping between gigs in D.C. and Atlanta, which very often meant that they were playing on Sunday, because they weren’t going to waste Saturday night in Reidsville. But there was a law against dancing on Sunday, so they would start the show at 12:01 A.M. on Monday morning and people would dance for hours. Then they’d stumble home, change their clothes, and go to the factory. That’s workplace culture. That was part of being African American and working at American Tobacco. In a friendly way, I say there are no consumers in my book. There are only producers.

Featured image: Detail of the cover of an envelope from 1912 addressed to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from British-American Tobacco in Shanghai, from the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, superimposed over a 1939 image of sharecroppers stripping and grading tobacco leaves near Carr, North Carolina. Photograph from the Library of Congress.

Nan Enstad is the Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she teaches cultural history, gender history, and the history of capitalism. She is the author of two books, Cigarettes Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Popular Culture and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press, 1999). She is beginning a new project about corporate agriculture and the ability of local communities to control their economy and environment. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects were “How’d We Get So Cheap? A Conversation with Bryant Simon” (October 2017) and “How Activists Are Taking on Factory Farms” (October 2016). WebsiteContact

Drew Swanson is Associate Professor of History at Wright State University. His latest book, Beyond the Mountains: Commodifying Appalachian Environments, will be published in two weeks by University of Georgia Press. He is also the author of A Golden Weed: Tobacco and Environment in the Piedmont South (Yale University Press, 2014) and Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape (University of Georgia Press, 2012). He is currently working on a history of Reconstruction and its memory in the rural South and a book on the consumer culture of American hunting. Contact.