- May 31, 2012
In America, plug tobacco has come to be known more chewing than for smoking, often called "chaw". This wasn't always the case, the smoking plug was once widely used, but after the Civil War its popularity declined.
The names of chewing plugs has always been fanciful, like Elephant Butts, Sure Shot, Blood Hound, Mammoth Cave, Big Kick, Red Coon, Brown's Mule, Days Work, Honey Dip Twist, Spark Plug, Cannonball, Chattanooga Chew, and of course, Climax Golden Twins.
Here's a few ads, pretty good stuff.
Here's an interesting article which details some of the historical aspects more thoroughly:
Originally published in The Irish Volunteer Journal, Vol. 4 No. 3, Summer 1999
Cigars and Tobacco of the Civil War
by Steven Eames
By the early 1860s, the three principal types of cigars were: the “cheroot”, which was a long, untapered roll of non-blended tobacco, usually imported from Mexico or Brazil, and very cheap; the “stogie” almost a foot long, thin, and tapered to a mouth piece at one end, sometimes sweetened with molasses so that it could chewed if you did not have a match; and the “cigar” which generally was the Connecticut version with the cinnamon blotch wrapper. Apparently, these cigars did not exceed a 42 to 44 ring gauge, were generally about five inches long, and the butt tapered to a point. A look at any 19th century cigar cutter will reveal a very small hole to accommodate the tapered butt. The nice round butts (which, as many of you know, I prefer) on today’s cigars are not correct for the Civil War era.
Having said this, Robert Heimann also points out that almost everyone who farmed had their own tobacco patch, saying, “Before 1870, almost any kind of factory tobacco product was more or less an aristocratic luxury.” Heimann also writes that, “cash was not spent even on cheap cigars or plug [tobacco] if homegrown leaf could be had.” With everyone growing their own—and tobacco was everywhere—there was no point in buying a factory-made product. Further, the cigars a person might buy had no blending of tobacco—they only had what was locally grown. Why buy a Connecticut cigar when a person grew the same stuff in his back yard?
As for Civil War soldiers, it could be that being removed from the back yard patch increased the appreciation of the ready-made cigar, and certainly factory cigar consumption began to take off during the Civil War to reach its height in 1910. But how often did enlisted men smoke cigars? The average prices for cigars at the time were 5 cents, 10 cents, and the premium cigars at 20 cents. To put that in perspective, an enlisted man made $13 a month; divide that by 30 and you get 43 cents per day. So a premium cigar would have cost half of a day’s wages, and that’s without tacking on the sutler charges for bringing them to the army. Beyond cost, there is the question of transport. Where would an enlisted man carry a fragile cigar? In a fancy leather carrying case? Would they throw them in their haversack? What condition do you think they would have been in after a day’s march? Even company level officers, who could better afford cigars, would have a tough time keeping cigars in one piece on the march, and field grade officers would only have them when the baggage wagons caught up.
Another interesting point is that cigar smoking was predominately a Northern phenomenon. Heimann describes the Civil War as the war between the “ northern cigar and the southern plug.”, and the reason for this description is very simple. Tobacco is a very strange plant and is much affected by the soil in which it is grown. In the 17th century when the Virginians were starting to grow tobacco, they found that black bottom soil produced milder tobacco, and that sort of land became most sought-after, and continues to be today. However, one does not hear about Virginia tobacco being used for cigar production. Earlier in this century, long before Fidel Castro, Cuban growers brought Virginia cigarette tobacco seeds to Cuba so they could diversify. In two years the plants from those seeds were producing a wonderful Cuban cigar leaf—the tobacco had adapted to the soil. Cigar tobacco can be grown in Connecticut, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, and other places, but cannot be grown in Virginia, North Carolina, or Tennessee. The only areas producing any cigar tobacco in America today are Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and some in Florida, and in one area of Georgia.
Now there is no question that Southerners could roll up a leaf of tobacco and smoke it, but in the South, tobacco was chewed or smoked in a pipe. Where would a Southerner get cigars? From Connecticut? Through New Orleans as they did before the war? (Oops, New Orleans was in Northern hands.) Through the blockade? Now before you bring up the Antietam campaign’s famous Lost Order No. 191 that was wrapped around three cigars, I will point out two things: 1. the cigars undoubtedly came from a staff officer, 2. and the Army of Northern Virginia was in Maryland on the invasion of the North. It is extremely doubtful that the typical Rebel infantryman ever smoked a cigar during the war, and the stuff they traded for coffee with Yanks was good old plug tobacco. This also means that when Northern soldiers were in the South, the tobacco they were “liberating” was plug or twist or navy tobacco.
An interesting story about Federals liberating Southern tobacco… When Sherman’s men were in North Carolina, they ransacked the warehouses of J.R Green in Durham. Green did not press his tobacco into plugs because he had a special curing process, and believed that pipe smoking was becoming more popular than chewing. His loose leaf tobacco was called “Best Flavored Spanish Smoking Tobacco.” It proved very popular, and the Union soldiers wrote to Green asking for the tobacco after the war. Knock-offs appeared calling themselves “Durham Tobaccos” or “Best Flavored Spanish”, so Green adopted the trademark of a bull and called it “Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco”, but it became popularly known as “Bull Durham.”
If you are concerned about authenticity, then what guidelines should you follow for tobacco use? For enlisted men, while doing early-war impressions (before shipping out to the Seat of War) or portraying soldiers home on recruiting duty, one can probably smoke all the cigars one wants. In such scenarios, cigars would have been available in local stores, and local people, Soldiers’ Aid groups, and relatives might have supplied the brave heroes before they went off to war. If the weekend scenario is a “base camp” in Virginia (i.e. not a campaign scenario), then cigars would be problematical. They might have been available at the regimental sutler’s, but the price would be excessive (but perhaps not out of the financial means of officers). In a campaign impression, however, there should be no cigars for anyone, and what you should have is a simple pipe and plug tobacco.
What do we have today that approaches tobacco products in the Civil War?
As for pipe tobacco, the news is a little better. First, note that the loose tobacco sold everywhere does not have the proper look. Instead, use tobacco cut from pressed tobacco, which is often referred to as flake, navy, or square. Some modern-day examples are Capstan Navy Cut, and Edgeworth Flake. The writer has used Peterson’s University Flake, which comes in a small, rectangular tin; the tobacco is stacked in slices cut from a plug, and it has to be rubbed out before smoking.
But if you really want to have Civil War tobacco, why not have a real plug? At first, it seemed like obtaining a real plug would be impossible because the plugs and twists in this country are sold as chewing tobacco. The large twists that look like an eyebolt and seen at the sutlers are chewing tobacco. Stokers has chewing tobacco in a plug called “Rebel Plug” which the writer thought would be good for display purposes, until an Internet websearch was performed. The search turned up the website for James L. Barber in the United Kingdom (http://www.smoke.co.uk)–a firm that sells pipe tobacco in twists and solid plugs, and even the names are great. Gawith makes twists with names like “Black Irish” and “Brown Irish”, but even better are the plugs produced by Murray Tobacco, including “Garryowen Plug”, “Potomac Plug”, “Mick McQuaid”, “Warrior”, and “Erinmore” The writer ordered some of this, and the tests thus far are very good. The plugs are 50 grams of tobacco pressed into a block 2 inches by 1½ inches by ¾ inches, which is the equivalent to a regular-size tin or about 3-4 oz. of loose tobacco. A slice less than 1/8 inch wide along the 2 inch side will rub out to enough tobacco to fill a normal pipe, which translates to about a 12 pipe-fulls per tin—even more if a small clay pipe is used. It costs about eight dollars, U.S., not counting shipping (the minimum order is 150 grams (three plugs), so the more one orders the lower the postage cost per plug). The writer has tried to find a source for similar pipe tobacco in America and thus far had no results. It seems that Americans are not used to this kind of tobacco anymore.
The writer has tried the Potomac Plug (spicy smell and taste, pleasant, mild), Golden Bar (very mild, less distinctive flavor), and Black Irish Twist. The latter is black, oily, evil-looking stuff not in a square, but rather in a long, pressed nondescript shape. However, while not as mild as Potomac and Golden Bar, the Black Irish Twist is not bad. As of this writing, the writer has not tried Erinmore or Garryowen.
To carry your tobacco, stay away from the muslin sacks with labels and draw string. According to Neimann they were not common until after the war, and the machine to make them was not perfected until 1895. The writer has not done any research on pipe styles, and so that topic remains for someone else’s future article.
And, if you see a supposedly hardcore Rebel reenactor smoking a cigar, call the authenticity police.
...interesting stuff there.
I was turned on to the plug form by GLPease's Jack-Knife Plug, that first time I smoked it, it was the finest smoking experience I've ever had and I still love it muchly, probably my favorite tobacco.
I've found a few more examples of plugs, but they're hard to come by here in the States. Of the few I've had, I rank Murray's Warrior Plug right up there at the top, so much so that I'm willing to pay U.K. prices for it, which are $20 per 50g, pretty expensive but well worth it to me, there's nothing else I've had that is quite like it --- I don't know who owns the rights to this brand, on the pouch all it says is Scandinavian Tobacco Group, so I reckon its made at the Orlik factory, I wish they'd import it to the States, so we could escape the high UK taxes...this stuff is good!
If anyone in the States wants this stuff, you can find a fellow pipeman over there to trade with, or you can go thru Mr. Snuff, I had a good experience with Mr. Snuff, he was running a shipping special, so I got 5 pouches of Warrior Plug for $99,
Another source is James Fox in Ireland, he will ship to the USA and has some hard-to-find plugs like Condor, Erinmore,and Velvan, as well as Maltan Flake which sounds pretty good. I've yet to place an order, so I can't comment on customer experience.
And this brings us around to a theory I've developed --- I think the origins of the truly fine smoking plug tobacco can be traced to Ireland, it seems clear to me, but I could be wrong. Anybody got info?
Looking at this 1948 Irish statute book, gives an idea of how plugs were on the market at one time:
I was browsing through old posts on ASP and stumbled across the mysterious Bendigo Plug, it was available up until fairly recently: "Gallaher made "Taylor's" Bendigo - available at Peterson's store in Dublin city and for some reason in rural towns around the west of Ireland."
Here's another mention:
" Now its time for a Goldflake for the boss and a pipe-full for Herbie; Bendigo plug. The ritual of pipe cleaning, cutting and crushing the tobacco between the palms, filling and finally a majestic lighting of the pipe was all part of the pleasure. Like two Indian chiefs they sat lost in their own thoughts. How we loved the aroma of Bendigo; no worries about passive smoking in the peaceful meadows of Glenballyma!"
A little bit about Lambkin in Cork:
" When the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, Gallaher's retired from Ireland and this enabled Lambkin Brothers to secure some of the most modern machinery from them which allowed a considerable increase in their output and all their brands were then manufactured by the most up to date methods...On October 2nd 1933 this advertisement appeared in the Cork examiner: ‘Lambkin Bros., Tobacco, Snuff and Cigarette Manufacturers. Makers of the original Cork Snuff and well-known Plugs: ‘ Kentucky’, ‘Shandon’ and ‘Oaknut’ "
The Irish Playgoer and Amusement Record ..., Volume 1, 1899 , Tug-of-War plug & etc...
A great newspaper article pdf about the Garryowen Plug factory:
I wish we had a broader range of plugs available, the form seems to harmonize the flavors perfectly, allowing them to marry and develop --- and take the rough edges off strong tobacco, which is another reason I love 'em so much, a plug allows very stout bacca to be very smooth, and usually not harsh as it can be in RR'd or shag cuts.
A few more ads from the glory days: