Journal of American History

Reasons to Talk about Tobacco

about the author

963 PetedanielFormer OAH president Pete Daniel was bred in the tobacco culture of North Carolina. His family ties to growing, harvesting, and selling tobacco reach back several generations, and he talks fondly of summers spent readying tobacco leaves for auction. But his breeding is also academic. Daniel’s University of Maryland dissertation, Peonage in the South, and many of his subsequent publications, including The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901–1969 (1972) and Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (1985) relate the history of tobacco culture and examine the impact of government programs and mechanization on rural life.

Daniel is a former curator at the National Museum of American History. This article is a revised version of the presidential address delivered to the convention of the Organization of American Historians in Seattle, Washington, on March 28, 2009.

Readers may contact Daniel at petedanielr at gmail dot com.

In June 2008 Agricultural History Society president Jess Gilbert asked me to replace a panelist on a session with the historian Linda Gordon, who presented a paper on the Farm Security Administration (fsa) photographer Dorothea Lange. I recalled an interview I had done in 1981 with archivist and author Leonard A. Rapport (1913–2008), who had accompanied the fsa photographer Marion Post Wolcott (1910–1990) when she photographed tobacco warehouses in Durham, North Carolina, so I put together a paper, “Marion Post Wolcott’s Tobacco Auction Photographs,” featuring Wolcott’s images. After the session, Jess urged me to expand the paper and present it as my Organization of American Historians (oah) presidential address.[1]

Jess’s enthusiasm brought to mind other reasons to talk about tobacco—reasons that are personal and familial, but also broadly historical. My great grandfather, Robert Alexander Hunt, moved his family southward from Granville County to Nash County, North Carolina, in the late nineteenth century as the bright tobacco culture spread south. The wave of cultivation, curing, and marketing skills that swept through the Carolinas and Georgia was part of a significant reconfiguration in southern rural life that included the spread of capital-intensive rice cultivation across the Louisiana prairie into Texas and north to Arkansas, the erasure of the Mississippi Delta’s Big Woods to usher in plantation cotton production, and the increasing role of government, science, and technology in agricultural practice.

My maternal grandparents, Annie Sykes and Robert Calvin Hunt, farmed with few modern conveniences in the Franklin County, North Carolina, community of Seven Paths, raising primarily tobacco, cotton, and corn. They did not get electricity or indoor plumbing until after World War II, and my grandmother cooked on a woodstove until the 1960s, when her daughters forced an electric stove on her. She stood back and twisted the electric stove’s dials as if she were setting the timer on a bomb. During my childhood, I worked on my grandparents’ farm barning tobacco, graduating through the harvesting processes from handing to trucking to priming. When we traded help with other farms down the road, I would ride our mule past Mr. Ruffin Collie, never suspecting that the friendly man sitting under the tree and peacefully chewing tobacco would survive to become the oldest Confederate veteran in the state. My uncle Carroll Hunt worked on the farm for a few years after returning from World War II; his fluent curses aimed at errant mules supplemented my formal vocabulary. Like his ten brothers and sisters, Uncle Carroll eventually abandoned farming for public work.[2]

After I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wake Forest University and wrote a thesis on the New Deal tobacco program in North Carolina, I worked a year for the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and learned the cigarette manufacturing process. I brashly asked Dr. Nannie May Tilley, whose The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860–1929 (1985) is the definitive text on the culture, to read my thesis. At the time, she was writing her history of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Since tobacco was so intimately connected to my earliest physical and historical work and since Wolcott’s recording of warehouse activities intersected with my own interests in oral history and photography, tobacco seemed to be the right choice for this talk.[3]

Durham is only fifty miles from Spring Hope, my hometown. In the summer of 1939, Dorothea Lange took photographs of tobacco farmers in the Durham area, and Marion Post Wolcott followed her there in October of the same year. The significance of Lange’s and Wolcott’s photographs is in the way they capture the daily and seasonal work cycles of tobacco farmers, the contextual social relations around the market, and the moment when farmers watched their crop auctioned in seconds to buyers they distrusted.

Leonard Rapport

Leonard Rapport

Born in 1913 in Durham, North Carolina, Leonard Rapport was surrounded by tobacco culture early on. Read more >

Leonard Rapport

Born in 1913 in Durham, North Carolina, Leonard Rapport was surrounded by tobacco culture early on. His boyhood home stood near a tobacco warehouse, the Liggett and Meyers cigarette plant was two blocks away, and the families of many of his schoolmates earned their livings from the tobacco industry. After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1935 and working for the University of North Carolina Press, he joined the Federal Writers’ Project to collect and publish the life stories of tobacco warehouse workers.

From 1949 until his retirement in 1984, Rapport had a distinguished career as an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. His writings on archival methods, including the identification and appraisal of historical records, received much scholarly attention.

After retirement, he became an avid trekker, hiking the Appalachian Trail through Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina and walking coast to coast in England, Ireland, and Scotland. He made his final long-distance trek across the British Isles when he was 80, and died in 2008 at the age of 95.

Leonard A. Rapport, who in 1939 was interviewing people in the Durham warehouse district for the Works Progress Administration’s Southern Writers’ Project, served as Wolcott’s guide and interpreter as she moved among tobacco farmers, warehousemen, buyers, auctioneers, and restaurant workers. Rapport introduced Wolcott to the carnivalesque mingling of shysters, merchants, and snake oil salesmen in the warehouse district, and interpreted the complex vocabulary that tobacco farmers and warehousemen used to describe the seasonal and daily tasks required to bring the labor-intensive crop to market.

Rapport’s unpublished manuscript, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” lays a vivid narrative foundation for the photographs Wolcott took: “Some bright January day go up to the fourteenth floor of the Washington Duke hotel . . . and on the north side look almost directly down,” Rapport suggested. “There, scattered over five city blocks and occupying a dozen acres, are eight almost flat roofs. From each rooftop skylights, four or five hundred to the building, reflect the sun. The structures are tobacco auction warehouses.” Then, he proposed, look beyond “the rooftops past the town and to the bluish-gray Durham County countryside, extending northward into the counties of Granville and Person, westward into Orange.” These counties looked toward Danville, Virginia, where farmers developed bright (flue-cured) tobacco before the Civil War, and spread the culture south in the decades after the war.[4]

“Tobacco warehouse section of Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.”

“Tobacco warehouse section of Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.” Read more >

Tobacco warehouse section of Durham, North Carolina, November 1939

“Tobacco warehouse section of Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.” Leonard A. Rapport described this view from Durham’s Washington Duke Hotel in “Tobacco Comes to Town.” Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, fsa/owi Collection, LC-USF34-056357-D.

Warehouse auction sales originated in Danville in 1858, when tobacco buying moved indoors off city streets. In what came to be known as the Danville system, buyers could examine and purchase loose-leaf piles of tobacco that were laid out on an open floor. After the Civil War, the Danville system moved south with the spread of the bright tobacco culture. Tobacco warehouses were dominated by large open spaces to display tobacco and contained skylights for illumination, stables for farmers’ horses and mules, dormitory-style camp rooms where farmers could spend the night, and business offices. When the sale season ended, warehouses were used for rallies, lectures, exhibits, concerts, and dances, and were the site of enduring card games and storytelling. Bull Durham smoking tobacco manufacturer W. T. Blackwell was instrumental in obtaining the space for the first warehouse tobacco auction in Durham in May 1871. By the time Rapport’s and Wolcott’s paths crossed in 1939, the bright tobacco cultivation and warehousing system had swept through the Carolinas and into Georgia and Florida.[5]

Leonard Rapport grew up in Durham. “My childhood home in Durham was a hundred feet from a tobacco storage warehouse and two blocks from the Liggett and Meyers cigarette plant,” he recalled. “My grade school looked out on the Bull Durham factory.” Many of his classmates’ parents worked in the tobacco factories. In 1935 Rapport graduated from the University of North Carolina and then—in his words—he worked for “the brilliant, bristly, controversial” W. T. Couch at the University of North Carolina Press. Rapport’s short story, “The Night the Bucket Fell” (originally published in 1936 in the Virginia Quarterly Review), was reprinted in Best Short Stories of 1937, to high praise.[6]

In the summer of 1938, Rapport took a pay cut and followed Couch to the Southern Writers’ Project. He interviewed people around Durham who worked in the tobacco warehouse district and by October he had begun writing about tobacco. He asked Couch to allow him to begin a walking trip across the South. This walking tour plan never came to fruition, but in 1939 Rapport did hitchhike to Florida and Georgia to observe the opening of tobacco markets and to collect life stories. Even as their plans for a book on tobacco based on oral histories conducted by a number of writers came together, Rapport refused to be listed as editor of the entire collection of histories because he had reservations about the veracity of some of the interviews that had been done by others. The start of World War II interrupted work on the book, and it was never published. Rapport served in the army from 1941 to 1948; shortly after his discharge, he and his fellow serviceman Arthur Northwood Jr. published Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne Division.[7]

Icon Audio Listen to an excerpt of Pete Daniel’s interview with Leonard Rapport who discusses meeting Marion Post Wolcott.

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Rapport had studied at the University of North Carolina with R. D. W. Connor, the first archivist of the United States. From 1949 until his retirement in 1984, Rapport had a distinguished career at the National Archives as an authority on the Constitutional Convention and the Bill of Rights. Several of his tobacco warehouse interviews were anthologized, and he often wrote on archival subjects. I met Leonard Rapport at the National Archives in the late 1960s when I was doing dissertation research. In 1981, when I was writing Breaking the Land (1984) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Leonard lent me his manuscript and sat for an interview. He revealed that he had escorted Marion Post Wolcott on her warehouse assignment, and I used one of her images in my book. After I wrote up the warehouse culture for Breaking the Land, I returned Leonard’s manuscript to him and moved on to other projects.[8]

Marion Post Wolcott

Marion Post Wolcott

Born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1910, Marion Post Wolcott was a curious and precocious student who trained to become a teacher while simultaneously nurturing an interest in photography. Read more >

Marion Post Wolcott

Born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1910, Marion Post Wolcott was a curious and precocious student who trained to become a teacher while simultaneously nurturing an interest in photography. Teaching in a small town in Massachusetts during the 1930s opened her eyes to the realities of the Great Depression and the plight of the poor. Combining her burgeoning social conscience her improving photographic talents, Wolcott began documenting on film the dramatic class differences she witnessed daily. She supplemented her portfolio with photographs taken during travel in Paris and Nazi-occupied Vienna, and through freelance work in Philadelphia and New York.

Fellow New York Photo League members Ralph Steiner and Paul Strand shared her portfolio with Farm Security Administration (FSA) head Roy Stryker. He hired Post immediately to document the southern agricultural region’s difficult times. From 1938 to 1941, she crisscrossed the South alone, interacting on a personal level with her subjects to collect images that revealed the struggles of their work and everyday lives. One of her assignments was to photograph the tobacco warehouse auction circuit in Durham, North Carolina.

Although Wolcott did not work “professionally” after her FSA tenure, the photographs she took during those years have been widely published, exhibited, and collected, and she remained a popular speaker and instructor in the photography communities of San Francisco and Santa Barbara, California, until her death in 1990.

Marion Post Wolcott’s biography is better known than that of Leonard Rapport. She grew up in a comfortable—albeit troubled—household. As a young woman in Europe, she attended school, spent time with her sister, Helen, in Austria, and discovered that she had a good photographic eye. She began photography work for the Farm Security Administration in 1938 under the direction of Roy Stryker.[9]

Stryker had reservations about sending a single woman to the South. Dorothea Lange usually traveled with her husband, Paul S. Taylor, but Wolcott traveled alone. Stryker worried about Wolcott’s safety and about the complications that might result when a white woman photographed black subjects. Indeed, there were precedents to Stryker’s concern. The photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston had a notable encounter during a 1902 visit to Tuskegee, Alabama. While there she made a side trip to the Ramer Colored Industrial School. Just after dark, Principal Nelson E. Henry met her train, put her luggage in the wagon, and headed for the school several miles out of town. When Johnston realized how far they had to go, she decided to spend the night at the Ramer Hotel, postponing her visit to the school until the next day. It was late by the time they returned to Ramer, and most people had turned in for the night. But two young white men noticed the black male principal escorting the white female photographer and took offense. One of the men fired several wild shots at Henry, prompting Johnston to find another town in which to spend the night. Nelson Henry left Ramer, never to return, and his school was closed. This and other such cautionary incidents along the southern color line put white women and black men on their guard. Even so, Marion Post Wolcott was able to handle herself in difficult situations.[10]

Wolcott arrived in North Carolina at an ominous moment in the autumn of 1939. Tobacco farmers had recently rejected acreage controls for the 1939 crop, the first time they had done so since 1933, when the New Deal’s tobacco program had convinced farmers to cut their production to raise depressed prices. When the Georgia and Florida markets opened in August 1939 to handle the bumper crop, farmers bitterly complained that prices had dropped from $14 per hundred pounds to $6. The low prices offered for the 1939 crop intensified farmers’ enduring distrust of buyers, in part a legacy of the American Tobacco Company’s (atc) monopoly on production and sales in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A year before its dissolution in 1911, the American Tobacco Company manufactured 84.9 percent of chewing tobacco, 76.2 percent of smoking tobacco, and 86.1 percent of cigarettes sold in the United States. Even after the atc monopoly was broken up, farmers suspected that buyers for the atc, the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Central Leaf Tobacco Company, Imperial Tobacco Company, and other tobacco companies were conspiring on their warehouse auction bids. Eight days after the start of World War II, the Imperial Tobacco Company (itc)—usually the buyer of one-third of the annual tobacco crop—pulled its buyers off the market. With the auctions in the “Middle Belt” tobacco-growing region of North Carolina set to open on September 11, some farmers already had their tobacco in the warehouses for opening-day sales. The 1.2 million pounds sitting on the auction floors were sold at a very low price, and then by an agreement between the tobacco interests and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration the markets were closed. With practically the entire bright tobacco crop awaiting auction, the crisis forced immediate government intervention. Farmers quickly approved a 1940 crop year referendum to cut production, and the government agreed to purchase the itc’s share.[11]

Wolcott was in Durham in 1939 to follow up on a project begun by Dorothea Lange that summer in conjunction with University of North Carolina scholars Howard Odom, Margaret Jarman Hagood, and Harriet Herring. Roy Stryker had pushed Lange into the field, eager to get her out of the fsa darkroom and out of Washington. Lange and her husband had been working on An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties (1939), and Lange—much to Stryker’s chagrin—had wanted to supervise the printing of her photographs in the fsa lab. Stryker suggested to Howard Odom that Lange should take photographs of some of the people Margaret Jarman Hagood had interviewed for her work on southern women, Mothers of the South (1939). In June 1939 Lange had immersed herself in the bright tobacco culture and had begun the project that Marion Post Wolcott would take up in October.[12]

Icon AudioListen to Pete Daniel describe the tobacco making process. View photo essay >

When Wolcott arrived at Chapel Hill in early October, she found Hagood busy reading the proofs for Mothers of the South, nursing a sick daughter, and fighting a cold. They went out one day and, in Wolcott’s words, “came across a very interesting settlement of Negro owners with well equipped large farms, some of the ‘grown’ children going to college, etc.” With the markets closed and their tobacco unsold, farmers had little money—in some cases, not even enough to make the mandatory trip to town on Saturday afternoon. Wolcott supplied a vivid personal example of the cash shortage: “I was held up for a long time in a rural county—couldn’t get gas because I couldn’t get anyone or any store to change a $10 bill.”[13]

On October 17, Stryker wrote to Wolcott that the tobacco markets had reopened and that she should return to Chapel Hill to resume her work. In the meantime, Stryker had visited Chapel Hill and had talked with Odom and Couch about the project. He urged Wolcott to contact Couch and listen to his ideas. “Incidentally,” Stryker continued, “he has a writer in there who is following the tobacco story. I suggest you get hold of this fellow, have a talk with him—he might prove most helpful to you in getting a good tobacco story—from farm to market, including the lives of the people, what they think, how they carry on their work.”[14]

Leonard Rapport had a vivid memory of his meeting with Marion Post Wolcott. “She just showed up in Chapel Hill and much to my pleasure . . . here’s this beautiful young woman.” He would delight in escorting Wolcott, but she could also help him. The help could be reciprocal, since Rapport’s interviews with warehouse people for the Southern Writers’ Project had earned him insider credentials. “It was a mutual benefit,” he recalled, “because I saw, of course, the obvious opportunity to get some good illustrations for this tobacco book, and she saw, and Stryker did, the obvious advantages of having somebody who knew the market area and was involved there who could take his photographer around.” Both Wolcott and Rapport were in their mid-twenties, bright, productive, and good-humored. As Rapport recalled, it was one of his “great experiences” to spend “that whole night on the tobacco market going around after supper, I guess, staying until breakfast, and going in all those warehouses, camp warehouses, where the men were sleeping.”[15]

By the time Rapport and Wolcott were walking the warehouse floors and Durham streets in November, the 1939 tobacco crop cycle had carried farmers through seasonal tasks starting with seeding a plant bed in the winter, preparing the land for planting, transplanting the young plants to the field, hoeing, cultivating, removing invasive worms from the plants by hand, pulling the flower tops and tiny sprouts (suckers) from the tobacco plant to direct all of the plant’s energy to the leaves, barning the tobacco, and grading it for sale.[16]

The barning process began with workers, known as primers, selecting the three or four ripe leaves from the tobacco stalk each week. (Tobacco ripens from the bottom to the top of the stalk, a few leaves at a time.) Young boys usually served as truckers to drive the mules back and forth from the field to the scaffold, carrying the harvested leaves. Stringers—usually women—took leaf bundles from handers and tied them to sticks for hanging. These women were proud of their sure hands that could quickly wind the string around the leaf bundles to make a securely tied stick of tobacco that would not shed leaves in the barn and risk a fire. Hanging tobacco in the barn took two people—one located on top tier poles and one located on bottom tier poles—and a line of people who passed the sticks into the barn and to the hangers.

Tobacco was flue-cured to transform it from green to golden; this method required the precise application of heat through flues to the hanging tobacco during the curing cycle. During the process, someone had to tend the fire in the barn’s furnace twenty-four hours a day to ensure that the heat did not diffuse and ruin the tobacco. The whole barning cycle (from priming to flue-curing) took five or six weeks until all of the tobacco had ripened from the bottom to the top of the plants. The cured tobacco was placed in a packhouse and kept moist enough to be pliable until it could be graded, tied into hands, and taken to market. Before a farm’s tobacco crop was auctioned, the crop was graded. In the packhouse, or sometimes in their homes, farmers removed the cured tobacco leaves from the sticks, placed them on a grading bench, and separated each leaf by grade. Some leaves may have retained a green cast even after curing, other leaves may have become dark, and others may have obtained the proper golden color. The separated tobacco was then tied into hands by grade. In the standards used for grading tobacco, the primings from the lower plant stalk were called “sand lugs”—sometimes described as trash. The middle leaves were the most valuable and the “tips” less so.

As grading progressed through the vaious barns, a farmer might carry a load of tobacco to market to settle some of his accounts, and would continue his warehouse trips until the last leaves were graded and tied into hands. “No episode of the year furnished such a pleasant time for the farmer who loved stir and bustle, the gibberish of the auctioneer, and jovial greetings from the warehousemen,” the historian Nannie May Tilley wrote. Farmers felt important as they presented their tobacco for auction.[17]

Barning tobacco brought family, neighbors, owners, tenants, sharecroppers, black, white, young, old, men, and women together. They shared gossip, news, sweat, fatigue, Pepsi-Colas, Moon Pies, and meals. The mix of workers encouraged jokes, flirting, and desire. Boys pursued manhood by advancing from handing to trucking to priming, and by climbing the tier poles to hang tobacco. Girls pursued womanhood by progressing from handing bundled tobacco leaves to the stringers to stringing the tobacco on the sticks; a few women went to the field to prime and even climbed the tier poles as men did. After the barning season ended, farmers removed the cured tobacco from the sticks, graded each leaf, put it with others of the same quality, and tied the tobacco into hands to make it as attractive as possible. They took great pride in the presentation of their crop.

Women were crucial to tobacco production, as Lange’s and Wolcott’s fsa photographs indicate. They weeded plant beds, chopped weeds in the fields, wormed, topped, and suckered tobacco plants, and worked at the scaffold to hand, string, and pass sticks of tobacco into the barn. They also handled their own household duties, cared for their families, and cooked for a large crew of workers. Some women went to the warehouses to witness the auction because the pile of tobacco on the auction floor embodied a year of their own work.

When the markets opened in October 1939, farmers were eager for cash and planned the first of several trips to the warehouse to sell their crop. After farmers unloaded their tobacco at the warehouse, put it on pallets, weighed it, and placed it on the warehouse floor, they had time to kill before the auction. The warehouse district was ripe with opportunities for amusement. Given the intensity of barning and grading tobacco, a trip to Durham or other market towns offered a welcome release to talk with other farmers, have a drink of liquor, listen to music, buy the goods sold in profusion around the warehouse district, or chase women. Three of the warehouses had their own cafés, but the City Café, Farmers Café, and Little Acorn Café also catered to auction attendees. Only the Leaf Café operated year-round, and during auction season it was open twenty-four hours a day. The larger cafés had one side segregated for African Americans. “Tobacco farmers are the best people in the world to do business with,” Leaf Café owner Adam Tinsley observed. “They work the whole year, come to town, sell their crop, and want to drink a little whiskey, have a little fun.” Tinsley, a Granville County native, observed that farmers did not order vegetables, lettuce, or chicken but preferred “stew beef, ham sandwiches, hamburgers, egg sandwiches, oysters, fish, and they’re right strong for brains and eggs. Their drink is beer, though some like wine.” Leaf Café waitress Mabel Jones had worked from seven o’clock in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon for eight years to support her son on $5 per week; she complained that the patrons were not generous tippers.[18]

Many of the customers that Mabel Jones served during auction season wore new bib overalls and nice jackets; they were obviously not dressed in their worn work clothes from barning season. Wardrobe is one of the most telling features of Wolcott’s photographs: farmers in new overalls, nice hats, and leather jackets; buyers and auctioneers clad in coats and ties; and pitchmen sometimes imaginatively dressed. Women also invariably dressed up for the auction. Leonard Rapport commented on the wardrobe of four farmers who got out of an automobile: “one wears overalls, a blue cambric shirt, no tie, a dark coat, a sheepskin overcoat, and black low shoes. . . . Another wears a cheap suit and an old overcoat; the other two, coats and cotton trousers.” All four wore “slouched hats with moderate width brims” although they would have preferred scarce “broadbrims.” The older farmers on the warehouse floor wore a “hat, overalls, and a dark coat or jacket, with work shoes in place of the oxfords.”[19]

African Americans’ appearance in many auction photographs suggests both how close and how far apart black and white southerners lived. While the cafés, hotels, and water fountains were segregated, black and white farmers shared the bustling streets and auction floors in Durham much as they navigated the fields and scaffolds back home. Blacks and whites understood the color line’s boundaries, yet Wolcott’s photographs suggest a peaceful warehouse environment.

“Lunch stand and tobacco inside entrance to warehouse at end of auction sale, Durham, North Carolina, November 1929.”

“Lunch stand and tobacco inside entrance to warehouse at end of auction sale, Durham, North Carolina, November 1929.” Read more >

“Lunch stand and tobacco inside entrance to warehouse at end of auction sale, Durham, North Carolina, November 1929.”

“Lunch stand and tobacco inside entrance to warehouse at end of auction sale, Durham, North Carolina, November 1929.” Many farmers welcomed the diversion offered by the cafés and shops in the tobacco auction warehouses. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, fsa/owi Collection, LC-USF34-52846.

As Nannie May Tilley explained, “Merchants, peddlers, fakers and a variety of swindlers stood ready to profit from any gullible farmer.” Farmers explored the streets around the warehouses, listened to sidewalk preachers, heard pitches for goods and cures, evaluated everything from hounds to automobiles, and—if they arrived the day before the auction—ate supper and slept in the camp rooms or went out to carouse the night away. Rapport claimed that farmers in the camp rooms used their shoes for pillows, “and taking them off usually constitutes undressing.”[20]

A popularly circulated saying about warehouse people was that “they work like hell, drink like hell, and loaf like hell.” But the long months of loafing came to an end when Durham’s warehouse district woke up and the auction season began. “During these busy days,” Rapport observed, “shooting galleries, medicine shows, sidewalk preachers, string bands, 10¢ photographers, beggars, and flimflammers have established themselves along Rigsbee Avenue or on its cross streets.” Rapport vividly described the intensity of the warehouse district at night: “All during the night—warm for November—the streets are alive with men. The cafes are filled. Shooting galleries and fruit stands stay open until one and two or later. There is a movement of men walking, riding; and all-night stirring; slow talk, laughter, lights, shouts of drunks, music of guitars, radios, shouting of doormen, the rumble of a heavy truck on the wooden drive.” The cafés had jukeboxes, “nickel-in-the-slot phonographs, piccolos,” in Rapport’s vocabulary. “The records,” he reported, “range from ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’ to ‘The Great Speckled Bird,’ ‘Birmingham Jail,’ and that all-time favorite of the district piccolos, ‘It Makes No Difference Now.’” The most popular current tune, he judged, was “Two Blue Eyes.”[21]

Rapport discovered that after the auction some farmers, using the money they earned from the sales, “went and bought enough clothes for the winter and clothes for the kids for school, and [a farmer] might go by the liquor store and buy some liquor and occasionally spend some on a female.” Prostitutes did not hang out around the warehouses; despite the festive atmosphere, the district was a site of respectability. “I think that you had the whorehouses, or whatever,” Rapport recalled, “and the guys learned where they were, and once they got money in their pocket and got enough to drink, they went to them.” Prostitutes favored Durham’s midtown hotels and rooming houses, but the town boasted no Sugar Hill, the notorious Kinston, North Carolina, neighborhood famous for prostitution. “On another market town,” Rapport continued, “one of the warehouse district cafes has, overhead, a number of rooms for rent, and waitresses fill ‘dates’ in them.” The café owner employed a dozen waitresses who “keep coming and going.” He had hired forty or fifty during the auction season and intimated that some of the women followed the tobacco markets from Georgia to Virginia.[22]

There was also space for respectable young women in the tobacco auction culture—in the festivals, beauty contests, parades, and boosterism that infected market towns. Beauty queens sported tobacco leaf swimsuits and were important to the auction promotions that permeated the tobacco belts. Each warehouse town claimed the best facilities, highest prices, most reputable merchants, and most beautiful women.

Despite the diversions available outside the warehouse, the auction dominated the scene, and auctioneers were the aristocracy of the warehouse culture. Rapport learned that auctioneer chant had begun simply as talk, and as the speed of sales increased, the talk had picked up a melody. “It was a logical development,” he judged, “though the experience of having the results of a year’s labor sold in a few seconds to apparent mumbo-jumbo—for few farmers ever learned to follow the bid—has continued to draw intermittent and exasperated protests from the tobacco growers.”[23]

Some auctioneers had almost godlike reputations. “Herbert Baker was the best auctioneer I ever heard,” Durham auctioneer Earl Brady remembered. “He had the prettiest, softest voice, clear as a bell, and his lower jaw would be going like a sewing machine. When he came out on the floor his clothes were pressed smooth as if he was going to preach, and he wore a high starched collar with the tie right at the top. People would come a long way just to hear him; from a voice standpoint he was considered great.” As he took bids, he twirled a straw hat around one finger. Some auctioneers would “step out,” speeding up sales to show off their skill. Roy Daniel sold the whole Big Bull warehouse in half a day, a feat that usually took until three fifteen in the afternoon. Such speed suggested a less-than-thorough appraisal of tobacco, and in the mid-1930s sales were restricted to no more than 360 piles per hour—that is 6 sales a minute. Looked at another way, a farmer’s crop got ten seconds’ attention from buyers.[24]

Auctioneers and buyers had reputations for drinking. A buyer for the Imperial Tobacco Company admitted to the auctioneer Earl Brady, “you know when I get hold of that stuff, it makes me wish I had a neck a yard long and a taster all the way down.” Rapport quoted Arthur Rawls, operator of the Big Bright Warehouse, on auctioneer drinking customs: “It looks like auctioneers just will drink. . . . Looks like they take a drink when they come off the floor tired and one drink leads to another.” Too much drinking, he theorized, might ruin their voices. “But on the other hand I never saw an auctioneer who didn’t drink who was any ’count.”[25]

“Auctioneer, buyers, and farmers during tobacco auction sale. Warehouse. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.”

“Auctioneer, buyers, and farmers during tobacco auction sale. Warehouse. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.” Read more >

“Auctioneer, buyers, and farmers during tobacco auction sale. Warehouse. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.”

“Auctioneer, buyers, and farmers during tobacco auction sale. Warehouse. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.” Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, fsa/owi Collection, LC-USF34-52790.

Rapport described another member of the warehouse culture, the pinhooker. He knew Cocky Tilley, a relative of the tobacco scholar Nannie May Tilley, who hosted an enduring card game at the Washington Duke Hotel and occasionally bought tobacco for speculation. Tilley would canvass the warehouse before the auction and look for a pile of poorly graded tobacco—that is, a mix of good and poor hands. He would bid low, and if his bid was successful he would re-grade the hands, separating the trashy tobacco from the better grade. If he did this quickly and found empty space at the end of the auction line, he might make a hefty profit during the same sale. Rapport was curious about the term “pinhooker” and wrote to Henry Louis Mencken about its origin. Although Mencken did not know the origin, Rapport boasted that Mencken included pinhooker in his American Language Supplement II (1948). Nannie May Tilley wrote that pinhookers had no standing among buyers; they operated around the edges of respectability, attempting to take advantage of farmers who did not grade their tobacco well or sometimes trying to tempt a farmer with an off-auction floor offer. Tilley told the story of the auction line approaching a “pale, sad-appearing little girl” standing beside a pile of tobacco. She asked the buyers to help her all they could. Moved by her plea, the buyers raised the price of the tobacco. Immediately after the sale, however, a pinhooker appeared and paid the girl a dollar. To prevent such incidents, Congress passed the Tobacco Inspection Act in August 1935, requiring that government specialists grade each pile of tobacco on the auction floor; this legislation no doubt narrowed the pinhooking opportunity.[26]

In his book draft, Rapport gave a vivid description of the auction process. At the head of the procession, a warehouse employee pulled random hands of tobacco from the piles, and the warehouseman gauged the hands for quality and started the bidding. The auctioneer took up the price, intently watching buyers’ body language for raises. These men had worked together so often that bids took on the subtlety and complexity of baseball signals. “The auction is conducted with a technical vocabulary intelligible only to the initiated, bids being made by well-understood gestures,” the U.S. Supreme Court case Currin v. Wallace concisely declared in 1939. Auctioneers exhibited awesome focus as they chanted six bids per minute while simultaneously interpreting signals from a dozen buyers. Ticket markers followed closely behind, recording the price and the buyer, and clip men trailed the bookmen. “Walking one on either side of the baskets they carry checkboards and, in their vest pockets, a half-dozen long-sharpened pencils,” Rapport wrote of the clip men: “The clipman puts down on his sheets the number of each pile, its poundage, and bid price. . . . The bookman’s sheets already have the grower’s name, number, and poundage, and to this he adds the bid price, the buyer, and the buyer’s grade.” It took fast calculating by the clip man and the bookman to handle these jobs. “Then both multiply in their heads the price per pound by the number of pounds and, as a check, call their figures aloud to each other.” Their calculation sheets went to the warehouse bookkeeping office for approval, where the bookkeeper deducted 10¢ per hundred pounds for the weighing fee, 15¢ per hundred for the auction fee, and 2.5 percent of the weight for warehouse commission.[27]

After the procession of ticket markers, bookmen, and clip men passed, farmers looked at the ticket for the purchase price for their tobacco, since—as Rapport suggested—few could decipher the auctioneer’s chants. They compared prices with other farmers, and some were dissatisfied. If they did not accept the price, they could tear their tickets and try another warehouse or move the pile ahead of the sale and try again. Rapport told the story of a man who sold the same pile of tobacco on the same warehouse floor ten times, with the price ranging from 21¢ to 37¢ per pound. If a farmer accepted the bid on his tobacco, he went to the pay window. Meanwhile, warehouse and buyer crews cleared the floor, loaded the tobacco on trucks, and delivered it to the buyers’ redrying plants for storage.[28]

Farmers may not have understood the incomprehensible auctioneer chant, but they were familiar with warehouse personnel. Indeed, some may have favored a particular warehouse because a friend or relative from their community worked there. Many warehousemen, auctioneers, buyers, clip men, bookmen, and warehouse work crews grew up on tobacco farms, and—even though they had escaped labor-intensive rural work—they had been shaped by rural culture. During a season, a warehouse would hire fifty to seventy-five hands.

“Bookmen for the warehouse follow the sale and check the prices of tobacco after the auction. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939”

“Bookmen for the warehouse follow the sale and check the prices of tobacco after the auction. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939.” Read more >

Bookmen for the warehouse follow the sale and check the prices of tobacco after the auction. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939

“Bookmen for the warehouse follow the sale and check the prices of tobacco after the auction. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939” The economic divisions among tobacco farmers, buyers, and auction employees described by Leonard A. Rapport's “Tobbaco Comes to Town” are also illustrated by many of Marion Post Wolcott’s photographs. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, fsa/owi Collection, LC-USF34-52374.

As Rapport observed, many of these people were “out of tobacco. They weren’t Yankees come down and become tobacco auctioneers or buyers.” Indeed, Rapport continued, a buyer might push up the price when he saw a familiar face, or bid a few cents higher if a pretty girl perched on a pile of tobacco. Buyers might occasionally succumb to human emotions, but Rapport judged that “it was not a totally free market.” Buyers worked together, drank together, and ate together. Each day tobacco companies wired them target bids, so although they bid against each other, they knew the parameters of what they could offer.[29]

Rapport wrote with great respect for the farmers’ hard and exacting work and vulnerability to frost, hail, rain, “horn worms, bud worms, flea beetles, wilt, root-rot, wildfire, blue mold.” He provided insight into the variables that might affect the auction price: “the financial condition of the British Empire,” weather in the tobacco belt, tobacco company buying instructions, grading savvy, an order from France, “the position of [a farmer’s] tobacco on the floor and whether the buying line happens to approach it from the east or the west,” whether a farmer took a buyer fox hunting, and “the not unimportant detail of whether during the past summer he and several hundred thousand others happened to raise a billion pounds of flue-cured tobacco, or a mere two-thirds of that amount.” The 1939 bumper crop that forced the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to close the warehouses ultimately averaged 14.9¢ per pound.[30]

Their final trip to the warehouse with the last of their tobacco ended the crop season for tobacco farmers. After the final sale they returned home, sharpened their saws and axes, and began cutting wood to heat the flued barns during the next summer.

The bright tobacco culture endured World War II, but the combination of federal policies, technology, and synthetic chemicals eroded the ranks of bright tobacco farmers. Acreage reductions threatened small farmers’ livelihoods, forcing them out of farming altogether or—as federal rules relaxed—allowing them to rent their land and their allotments to other farmers. Farmland sold with tobacco allotments brought a premium. What began as a New Deal program to control production thus became commodified, and acreage allotments could be rented, bought, or sold. These practices concentrated tobacco acreage among fewer farmers. Harvesting machines and migrant laborers replaced family, neighbors, and friends in the fields and at the scaffold. Automatic curing sheds resembling house trailers replaced the old flue-cured barns, and tobacco was no longer graded leaf by leaf and tied into hands. Instead it was dumped, ungraded, onto a burlap sheet and hauled to market. Chemicals stunted suckers and killed worms, but not without side effects. The sucker compound Penar caused severe dermatitis, and MH-30 could cause ear, eye, nose, and throat irritation and even convulsions and coma. In the early 1970s, when a toxic parathion hornworm compound replaced the more benign but banned ddt, several farmers died after working in fields that had been recently sprayed with parathion. As tobacco came under intense scrutiny as a carcinogen, not even the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (nascar), the Tobacco Institute, and Jesse Helms could save the federal program. Finally, within the last six years, even the warehouse culture has collapsed. Farmers now sell their tobacco directly to buyers. One now finds flea markets in some old warehouses, while other warehouses sit vacant, waiting for another use—or for the wrecking ball.[31]

When tobacco auctions moved from Spring Hope in the 1920s, my father bought an abandoned tobacco warehouse and installed his building supply and millwork business. His relatives migrated from Halifax County to Rocky Mount, and after his father died, many of the eleven children worked in the textile mills. My father entered the mills as a child, escaped to become a carpenter, and as a young man worked on construction projects throughout the Southeast. He never attended school. I asked him how he learned to read and write and run a business; he said that he dated intelligent women who taught him.

My after-school job from the eighth grade through high school was sweeping and shoveling sawdust and shavings onto a truck and driving the truck from one pile to another in the renovated tobacco warehouse. The job allowed me to drive trucks while being underage, to calculate time and motion in doing the job more efficiently, and to appreciate the value of hard work. That converted tobacco warehouse—now only a memory—is a tangential link with the work of Leonard Rapport and Marion Post Wolcott. But Durham’s lonely streets and neglected stores resonate with the abandoned tobacco warehouse culture that thrived during the mid-twentieth century.

[1] Linda Gordon, “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist,” Journal of American History, 93 (Dec. 2006), 698–727; Pete Daniel, “Marion Post Wolcott Tobacco Auction Photos,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society, Reno, Nevada, June 2008 (in Pete Daniel’s possession).

[2] Carroll Hunt and Nadine Hunt interview by Pete Daniel, Aug. 17, 2002, notes (in Daniel’s possession).

[3] Nannie May Tilley, The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860–1929 (Chapel Hill, 1948); Nannie May Tilley, The R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (Chapel Hill, 1985).

[4] Leonard A. Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” [c. 1940] (in Daniel’s possession). Leonard A. Rapport left his papers to the Southern Historical Collection in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. They are being processed.

[5] Tilley, Bright-Tobacco Industry, 197–225.

[6] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town”; Leonard A. Rapport, “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers,” Oral History Review, 7 (1979), 9–10; Leonard A. Rapport, “The Night the Bucket Fell,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 12 (Summer 1936), 68–75.

[7] The southern walking tour did not materialize, but after he retired in 1984 Rapport walked across England, Wales, Scotland, the Irish Republic, and along most of the Appalachian Trail. For a discussion of Rapport’s concerns about the veracity of the tobacco interviews, see Rapport, “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories.” Leonard A. Rapport and Arthur Northwood Jr., Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne Division (Washington, 1948); Leonard A. Rapport, “Georgia Sells a Crop,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 62 (Winter 1978), 316–21; Obituary of Leonard Rapport, Washington Post, April 12, 2008, national edition.

[8] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town”; Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana, 1984).

[9] Beverly W. Brannan, “Marion Post Wolcott: Tobacco Land,” in fsa: The American Vision, ed. Gilles Mora and Beverly W. Brannan (New York, 2006), 168–78; Paul Hendrickson, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott (New York, 1992); Sally Stein, Marion Post Wolcott: fsa Photographs (San Francisco, 1983); F. Jack Hurley, Marion Post Wolcott: A Photographic Journey (Albuquerque, 1989).

[10] Hurley, Marion Post Wolcott, 31; Pete Daniel and Raymond W. Smock, A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1889–1910 (New York, 1974), 115–17.

[11] Daniel, Breaking the Land,131–33; Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 25–26, 29–30. For statistics, see Tilley, Bright-Tobacco Industry, 307. For an impressionistic account of farmers’ reaction to the low prices, see Rapport, “Georgia Sells a Crop,” 316–21.

[12] Anne Whiston Spirn, Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (Chicago, 2008), 30–33; Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties (New York, 1939); Margaret Jarman Hagood, Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Women (Chapel Hill, 1939).

[13] Marion Post to Roy Stryker, Correspondence, 1924–1972 (microfilm: frames 530–35, series 1, 1939–40, reel 2), Roy Stryker Papers, 1912–1972 (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.); Stryker to Post, Oct. 6, 1939 (frames 544–45), ibid.

[14] Styrker to Post, Oct. 17, 1939 (frames 553–55), ibid.

[15] Leonard A. Rapport interview by Daniel, Dec. 11, 1981, notes (in Daniel’s possession).

[16] The discussion of tobacco culture in the following paragraphs comes from Daniel, Breaking the Land.

[17] Tilley, Bright-Tobacco Industry, 204.

[18] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 7, 10–12.

[19] Ibid., 34.

[20] Tilley, Bright-Tobacco Industry, 204; Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 41.

[21] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town, 2, 30, 37–38.

[22] Rapport interview; Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 41–42.

[23] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 16.

[24] Ibid., 58–59; Daniel, Breaking the Land, 209.

[25] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 58–59; Tilley, Bright-Tobacco Industry, 239–41.

[26] Rapport interview; Tilley, The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 300. On pinhookers, see Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 298–303; and Henry Louis Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States (New York, 1963). On the inspection act, see Currin v. Wallace, 306 U.S. 1 (1939). For North Carolina Chief Justice Walter Clark’s decision on an attempt to ban a buyer from the auction floor and its implications, see Gray v. Central Warehouse, 106 S.E. 657 (1921).

[27] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 46–52; Currin v. Wallace, 306 U.S. at 7. Georgia tobacco warehousemen sued to restrain the enforcement of a 1935 Georgia statute reducing charges for handling and selling tobacco. The law maintained a 2.5% commission on gross sales but reduced auction fees and weighing and handling charges to align them with those in warehouses in the Carolinas and Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the reduced charges were reasonable and that warehouses were “affected with a public interest.” See Townsend v. Yeomans, 301 U.S. 441 (1937).

[28] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 51–52.

[29] Ibid., 53; Rapport interview.

[30] Rapport, “Tobacco Comes to Town,” 43–44; Daniel, Breaking the Land, 132.

[31] On the commodification of allotments, see Pete Daniel, “The Legal Basis of Agrarian Capitalism: The South since 1933,” in Race and Class in the American South since 1890, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Rick Halpern (Oxford, 1994), 79–110. On poisonings, see Pete Daniel, Toxic Drift: Pesticides and Health in the Post–World War II South (Baton Rouge, 2005), 121–25, esp. 124.

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