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  • Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

    Bull Durham tobacco
    the 'cheapest luxury'

    by Delbert Trew
    Delbert Trew
    Excerpts from the 1971 Bottles and Relics Magazine reveal the history of Bull Durham smoking tobacco selling for five cents a bag and billed as "The Cheapest Luxury In The World."

    The tobacco became famous after 1860 when the trademark was registered, as almost every posed photo of a man showed the small round paper tags hanging from a vest or shirt pocket. This product took center stage in the West just like Arbuckle Coffee and Stetson hats.
    Bull Durham Tobacco ghost sign ,  Oklahoma , Ardmore
    Bull Durham Tobacco ghost sign in Ardmore, Oklahoma
    TE photo, 2005
    After years of smoking pipes and chewing the old "rope and cable twists" of tobacco almost any change was revolutionary. When James R. Green of Durham Station, North Carolina began offering a finely chopped tobacco, flue-cured for quality and mildness, his customers jumped at the chance to try his new product.

    When he packaged the tobacco in a soft white muslin sack with draw-strings, all of which fit neatly into the average vest or shirt pocket it further enhanced the product. As cigarettes made their debut, Mr. Green added a small packed of cigarette papers to the bargain and the rest of the story is history.

    Times were hard and most smokers had to learn to roll their own "quirlies" as called by the cowboys. The chore called for precise fingertip control, a tender twist to each end to hold the tobacco inside, a quick lip-flick to stick the paper then light up with a handy kitchen match.

    Numerous old west paintings and illustrations focus on cowboys working while smoking a quirlie. Masters of the trick bragged they could roll a quirlie while riding a bucking bronc or sitting on their horse in a 60 mph wind during a rainstorm.

    During the 1870s when homesteaders were flooding the prairies, some buyers and sellers would stop their horses at a wooden stake, roll and light a quirlie and start their horses walking. When they both finished their smoke they drove a stake denoting acres purchased.

    All members of my family except mother and I smoked. I remember Kentucky Twist, Old Hillside, Prince Albert, Lucky Strike and Camels. One distinct memory is sitting at the table after supper and working the little red machine, making cigarettes for my father. I also remember carrying marbles to school in a Bull Durham sack.

    Not only did the Bull Durham tags hanging from a pocket somehow distinguish the person as a "real man" many a lonely cowboy's life was made better when he met a visitor on the range and they shared the time with a quirlie.

    Those with little money bragged they could make 33 cigarettes out of one five-cent sack of Bull Durham. The small books of cigarette papers grew from about 30 to 100 as the tobacco companies competed for customers.

    Bull Durham had many imitators down through the years. All labels, sacks, tags, and tax stamps are very collectible today as well as paintings and advertisements about smoking.

    So, the "quirlie, the makins or just roll-your-owns," can take their rightful place among the many frontier relics and historical collections.


    Delbert Trew

    October 10, 2007 Column

    More "It's All Trew"
    Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by email at trewblue@centramedia .net. For books see delberttrew .com.
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