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Leaving Virginia

I t is a tribute to cigarette cards that there are not endless sets about cigarette cards.

Nowadays switching on the TV is a sure-fire way of watching a program about TV programmes. Tedious, cheap and unimaginative. Certainly not what you would expect from cigarette card output.

Actually the imagination of the card producers meant they almost forgot the very things which were under many a persons nose. There is the Churchman, Pipes of the World [1927] but Players From Plantation to Smoker [1926] is almost unique in it subject matter.

A series of 25 cards they must have produced them in large numbers as the price is about $10(US) and it does not look like a $10 set.

When I was a youngster there was there were many an educational program for children on the television which would have a segment in it which often showed some sort of production or manufacturing process. I particularly remember the milk bottle story. I think it was the noise of all that glass chinking together, the bottles being cleaned and refilled at such amazing speeds, the milk going in like paint. Nowadays there does not seem to be the same educational content on children's programs (different not the same). Anyway this set has the same sort of idea, although I doubt the production of cigarettes would have been considered politically correct even then.

If you did somehow persuade the program to be commisioned card one would ensure you were ejected from the meeting in double quick time.

a shed full of very dried out leaf fragments

I am not entirely sure John Rolfe (husband of Pocahontas) was the first person to raise tobacco but that is what it says on the reverse of the card. It does suggest it started in Jamestown in 1612 and by 1618 some 20,000 lbs of the stuff was being shipped to Great Britain. Certainly this much is true as Jamestown found it a very profitable cash crop, even planting tobacco in the streets.

The card itself shows a typical homestead of a Virginia Planter. Most tobacco being grown in Virginia and North and South Carolina.

Card 2 shows the early cultivation of the tobacco seed. From this I discover the seed is so fine that a tablespoon full would sow an area of 100 square yards. Clearly sneezing is not an option when planting this stuff.

This happens in February and by early spring the shoots will have developed 4 to 6 leaves and will be ready for moving from the nursery beds into the big bad world. Not all plants are ready and each plant is taken on its individual merit.

Card 3 explains there are about 4200 plants to the acre and each plant is set by hand. It also mentions the fact the tobacco plant does not really like water as this promotes all manner of disease. Card 5 shows the mule cultivator breaking up the surface.

The next few cards are still fussing about the development of the tobacco with people making sure the plants are 'topped' to ensure goodness remains in the plant rather than wasted by growing. Topping means it starts shooting out immature suckers and these have to be broken off. You begin to get the idea a lot of labour is used in this process and then you begin to remember the sort of labour that was once used for this business and your heart must sink more than a little.

Harvesting the tobacco looks like being the most labour intensive process of the lot. The plant does not seem to ripen all at once but rather two or three leaves at a time from the bottom up. As the leaves ripen they are picked and this can mean the field is harvested three or four times to complete the task. The harvesting takes place during the hottest part of the year (naturally)

Topping out.

Within the field some plants were left unmolested and these represent the plants which will be used for seed in the next years crop. An eye is kept on these to make sure the seed does not escape without being collected and an ordinary paper bag is placed over the seed head.

Once the tobacco has been picked it is bundled up and taken to the tobacco curing barns (card 10). Basically wooden structure between 16 to 24 feet square and about 17 feet high. In here the leaves are cured, heat is supplied by sheet metal flues running along the ground.

Curing is a three stage process by the looks of card 11. Stage one 'Yellowing'; this takes 24 to 36 hours with temperatures between 80 - 120 Fahrenheit. Fixing the colour is next and this is achieved by gradually raising the temperature to 140 F. Plenty of ventilation is given during this process and it takes 10 to 18 hours.

Finally the ventilation is closed down and the temperature raised by 5 degrees an hour until it reaches 170 F so as to completely dry out the stems.

Now what the farmer has is a shed full of very dried out leaves. To avoid having a shed full of very dried out leaf fragments the doors are opened and moisture is allowed to seep back into the leaves to ensure they do not shatter when handled.

The job is far from over for the farmer as now the leaves have to be graded into four or five different categories dependent on a number of factors (card 12). Having sorted this the leaves are tied into bunches of 15 or so and off to market he goes. The card notes the roads are so good in the tobacco growing district that a farmer might drive as much as 30 to 40 miles to sell his crop at a favourite market. Imagine that.

Card 13 deals with the selling of the crop by auction. Stand stuff really, although up to 300 lots per hour are got through and the card is very careful to point out there are enough buyers to ensure the farmer gets a good price for his crop. I expect the farmers were so reassured when the read the back of this particular card.

Now the set leaves behind the people that grew the stuff and lets them get on with the work of preparing the next crop and moves onto what happens with the tobacco the ITC has bought.

Tobacco goes from the market to the re-drying rooms. Then it is sent to the receiving room (at the height of the purchase season hundreds of thousands of pounds of tobacco are received daily into this room) to a sorting room. This is where some tobacco blending takes place as colouration of leaves can alter dramatically depending on the local conditions and it is also the stage sand, dust and dirt is removed from the leaves.

Card 17 is very much a card of its time and I think you can guess what that means. It actually depicts the hand stemming room, a process I have seen and quite incredible it is too, involving the removal of the stem and mid-rib from the leaf. Still I am not here to apologies for or rewrite history and equally I'm not going to repeat it.

Hand stemming

The next card shows the machine equivalent to hand stemming, this time though it can be operated by 'one girl' and is 'very simple' to operate.

Now the leaves require drying once again as they have been kept in a 'soft' state to avoid getting 'chippy' during the previous processes.

This is done by conveyor belt (card 20) usually 160 feet long. The tobacco sticks are sent through compartments heated to about 180 F where most of the moisture is driven out. Then it is cooled by 'powerful fans' and later a little bit of moisture put back into them.

Card 21 deals with the other end of the conveyor belt when the tobacco is packed into casks (about 875 lbs into a cask). Then tobacco is compressed by hydraulic ram so as to 'mellow evenly' and not become damaged by rough handling as it makes its journey across the sea.

Card 23 deals with the packing of a ships cargo hold. The stuff has to be kept away from the engine room or any other source of odour which could impregnate the 'aroma'. Between 5 and 15 hundred barrels are loaded.

The last two cards deal with the process of creating the cigarettes in a John Players & Sons' Factory.

The last card explains the actually cigarette making machine is manned by a highly-skilled operator and a girl, whose job it was to put the cigarettes into trays as they pour out of the machine.

A short set, a simple set and a nice set because it deals with something which was so obvious it was almost over-looked by the card manufacturers. Why not add this set to your next order, it somehow completes a circle.