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While growing up in rural Arkansas in the 1950s, I often visited Aunt Mattie, a woman of considerable age and a mindset fashioned in an earlier era. She would not even entertain the notion of having an indoor bathroom--saying that such a thing seemed unsanitary to her. Yet she did not hesitate to dip snuff regularly. I can recall her rising from a rocking chair on the porch to spit snuff juice into the front yard.

Our Arkansas ancestors were often addicted to nicotine.

Tobacco is native to the New World and had long been cultivated and consumed by the time Columbus arrived on the scene in 1492. In what has become known as the Columbian Exchange--the transfer of animals, plants, diseases and much more between the Americas and Europe following Columbus' discovery--tobacco quickly made its way to Europe. Indeed, by 1533 Europe's first tobacco merchant was operating in Lisbon. Historians have noted that of the "big four" American plants introduced to the rest of the world--the potato, tomato, maize or corn, and tobacco--only tobacco became universal in its growth and consumption. As early as 1617, an opponent of tobacco estimated that 7,000 English stores sold tobacco.

The incredible profits from tobacco ultimately saved the struggling English colonies, but the establishment of large tobacco plantations was the impetus for importing enslaved Africans, the first slave ship arriving in Virginia in 1619.

By the time Arkansas became a territory in 1819, tobacco was grown throughout the southeast, with Kentucky and North Carolina joining Virginia as centers of tobacco farming. Many men in early Arkansas--and not a few women--smoked pipes. The iconic painting known as the Arkansas Traveler by Edward Payson Washbourne portrays a poor Arkansas homestead, the laconic husband playing with his fiddle while his bedraggled wife, surrounded by barefoot children, peers from the door with a pipe in her mouth.

Many of these early pipes had ceramic bowls which were fitted with hollow stems, such as a piece of native river cane. Kathleen Cande of the Arkansas Archeological Survey has reminded me that visitors to Arkansas Post National Historic Site can see a red ceramic portrait pipe depicting President Franklin Pierce. Excavations at Arkansas Post also turned up a pipe bowl bearing multiple Masonic emblems. Poor people were not likely to have fancy ceramic pipes, but many used corncobs and river cane stems to make pipes at home. Those did not survive to be found by archeologists.

A large number of Arkansans, like their neighbors to the east, chewed tobacco or dipped snuff rather than smoking it. Thomas D. Clark, in his history of country stores wonderfully titled Pills, Petticoats and Plows, reported on the popularity of plug houses, the under-capitalized manufacturers of chewing tobacco.

Clark wrote, "It would seem that every farmer with a stock of raw tobacco, a mortgage, a case of licorice, a pillowcase full of dried apples and a homemade plug press introduced some romantically named product to the nation's chewers." Licorice and dried apples were widely used to flavor chewing tobacco.

Popular chewing tobacco in the years following the Civil War included Brown Mule, made by a young R.J. Reynolds. Ultimately the Reynolds Company developed and marketed more than 35 different plug tobacco brands.

Many people--men and women--who would never touch a pipe or cigar or plug of chewing tobacco gladly dipped snuff. Thomas Clark wrote about the appeal of snuff to women: "It was indecent for a woman to chew tobacco, and downright sinful for her, while under the age of 65, to smoke a pipe. In the age of careful observation of social customs, it is doubtful that a woman could have kept her self-respect in the years 1865 to 1915 if she had smoked either a cigarette or a cigar. But snuff was quite all right and many a dozen eggs were exchanged for it."

Many people shared the view that dipping snuff was much more socially and morally acceptable than smoking. Thomas Clark summarized the phenomenon: "Preachers with snuff and tobacco-stained lips condemned cigarette smokers to a scorching hell for eternal punishment."

Perhaps the most popular snuff marketed in Arkansas was Garrett's. It was sold in a small brown jar with three small nibs on the bottom. Many buyers always checked the bottom of the jar, searching for the "three tits on the bottom of the bottle."

Sometimes snuff played a role in law enforcement, or the lack thereof. In October 1920, a prisoner in the Jackson County jail in Newport managed to escape by "throwing snuff in the face of Jailer Hogan." A legal proceeding at DeWitt in Arkansas County was interrupted when a witness discreetly put evidence in his mouth while chewing tobacco. An alert attorney noticed the act and "compelled" the witness to disgorge the paper, but it was too late as the evidence "was completely obliterated by the tobacco."

Chewing tobacco and dipping snuff of necessity involved considerable spitting. And while most people seemed to accept the constant expectoration, there were always exceptions.

When it was proposed in 1850 that churches in Washington (Hempstead County) buy spittoons for the use by dipping and chewing congregants, local newspaper editor and future Arkansas Supreme Court judge John R. Eakin took a defiant stand: "We cannot agree in regard to purchasing spittoons for the accommodation of those who are addicted to the filthy practice of chewing tobacco in church."

The irate editor concluded: "If those guilty of the practice insist upon their right to chew and spit, whenever and wherever they may see proper, let them provide themselves with pocket spittoons, and enjoy themselves at their own expense."

An editorial in the German-language Arkansas Echo newspaper was far ahead of its time in warning in an editorial titled "Cigarettenmissbrauch" [abuse of cigarettes] that youths who smoke cigarettes were "slaves of tobacco" and more difficult to cure than morphine addicts.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at An earlier version of this column was published May 13, 2018.

Editorial on 04/21/2019

Print Headline: Tobacco in the territory


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