Sunday, August 26, 2007

Tobacco Harvest Hasn't Changed Much

Tobacco harvesting, curing, stripping methods described in 1923 are essentially unchanged today.

Tobacco, speared onto sticks and wilting in the fieldMy 1923 agriculture textbook has an entire chapter on growing tobacco. At that time, tobacco was America's eighth most valuable field crop. About 1/3 of that crop came from Kentucky. Other tobacco-growing states, in order of importance, included North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Connecticut.

Except for using tractors nowadays to take the wagons to the barns, tobacco harvesting procedures have changed very little in the last 80+ years. Even the scaffold wagon pictured in my old book looks very similar to that used today, except for the mule.

Kary Cadmus Davis, Ph. D. (Cornell), the author of , The New Agriculture for High Schools, wrote the following description of tobacco harvesting in the early 1920s.


Most tobacco in this country is harvested by splitting the stalk from the top to within a few inches of the ground. Then the stalk is cut off near the ground and is placed on a lath or "stick," running the lath through the split. These laths, when loaded, are placed across racks made for hauling the tobacco and are taken to curing barn or scaffolds. The tobacco should be allowed to wilt somewhat before being placed on laths and loaded on the wagon as it bruises much more easily when the leaves are crisp.

Ripeness of tobacco is indicated by the feel of the leaves, by the brittlesness of the veins when folded between the fingers, and by the slight yellowing of leaves. Frost in northern states often determines the time of harvesting as the crop must be in before frost.


There are three main types of curing tobacco: air curing, open-fire curing, and flue curing. Air curing is accomplished in specially constructed tobacco barns having ventilators up and down all sides. Open-fire or open hearth curing is accomplished in barns without special ventilation and is used chiefly for dark type of tobacco. Flue curing is in barns similar to the last but with more ventilation at the top, the circulation being caused by the heat. Flues conveying the hot smoke run through the barns.

Several weeks are required to complete the curing process, by any of the methods. Much study and experience is required to conduct the work successfully. All tobacco barns are provided with timbers and supports on which tobacco laths are placed.


When tobacco has been cured on the stalk, the next step is stripping, which consists in removing the leaves from the stalks. This should be done on moist days in early winter when the leaves are in proper "case." If too dry, they would be damaged by cracking and breaking. If they are becoming slightly to dry to "bulk," they are sometimes moistened a little, but it is better to have the leaves in natural condition with enough moisture present without adding any. They must be neither too wet nor too dry when in bulk.


During the stripping and bulking of tobacco leaves, they are sorted into three, four, or five grades, depending upon the type of tobacco. Leaves of any one grade are tied into small bundles and these into larger ones, according to the type of tobacco...

Source: The New Agriculture for High Schools by Kary Cadmus Davis, Ph. D., published by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, in 1923. From the chapter titled "Tobacco Products" (p. 223-224.)

Here, I'll end the quote, because the marketing is done differently nowadays. The old book describes the large tobacco warehouses and loose-leaf auctions of times goneby. Around Hopkinsville, many of these old warehouses can still be seen, but they are no longer used and tobacco auctions are no longer held. Most tobacco leaf is bought in the field by tobacco companies.

Trailer of tobacco sticks

Pictured above: a trailer loaded with pallets of laths (sticks) for spearing the cut tobacco plants. In the foreground, sticks with tobacco plants have been stood up in the sun so the tobacco can wilt before going to the barn.

Tobacco laths loaded onto scaffold wagon

Pictured above: A scaffold wagon, loaded with tobacco and ready to be pulled to the barn. The laths are laid across a framework and the plants hang down. In the barns, the laths will be laid across "tiers" of wooden framework, starting at the top of the barn and working down to the floor.

Related posts:
Major Tobacco Growing Areas, 1923
Also, check the label, "tobacco"

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ptg said...

I hope anti-tobacco zealots don't totally eliminate its culture and use. Too much emphasis on it being merely a nicotine ingestion vector has given it a bad name. There is more to it than that.

Genevieve said...

It truly does take knowledge, skill, and a lot of hard work to grow a good crop of tobacco. It's part of the culture here, and it has a long, proud history. It's still a legal crop, and it should forever remain so.

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