Column #98

The Tobacco Sack Connection

Bull Durham Tobacco sacks
Bull Durham Tobacco sacks

If you like looking at Depression-era quilts, chances are you may have seen at least one made out of tobacco sacks.

Tobacco sack quilts were especially popular during the 1930s, although they had been made before then. If you’re like me, however, you may never have given much thought to the back-story of the little muslin bags that thrifty quilters happily embraced as a pre-cut fabric supply to use in their quilts.

It was shortly after the Civil War when James R. Green of Durham Station, North Carolina began packaging finely chopped tobacco in a soft white muslin sack. Prior to that time, tobacco was sold in rope and cable twists.

The little bags, measuring about 3” x 4,” were sewn down the length of two sides with a drawstring opening at the top, to which a round paper tag was attached. They fit neatly into a pocket and kept the loose tobacco together in a tidy package, ready for smokers to use in their pipes or roll their own cigarettes.

According to a history of the Bull Durham Tobacco Company, “W.T. Blackwell partnered with Mr. Green and formed the Bull Durham Tobacco Company. The name ‘Bull Durham’ was supposedly taken from the bull on the British Coleman Mustard package, which Mr. Blackwell mistakenly believed was manufactured in Durham, England.

“By the turn of the century, Bull Durham Tobacco was reportedly the largest tobacco company in the world. The company introduced production, packaging, and marketing techniques that made Bull Durham a part of American industrial history and folklore.”

Certainly the packaging of tobacco in little bags was a stroke of marketing genius. The Bull Durham product sold for five cents a bag and was billed as "The Cheapest Luxury In The World."

The sacks were especially popular with cowboys, who called their cigarettes “quirlies” and it was said that they could make 33 quirlies out of one five-cent sack of Bull Durham. In old photos of the post Civil War era, it is common to see the small round paper tags hanging from a man’s vest or shirt pocket, almost a style statement. Other companies followed suit, and the little muslin sack became the de facto packaging for loose-leaf tobacco.

A cottage industry known as tobacco bag stringing sprang up around the construction of tobacco sacks. The University of North Carolina Library website describes this effort: “In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, families throughout the tobacco-growing regions of North Carolina and Virginia earned much-needed income by sewing drawstrings into cotton tobacco bags. Long forgotten today, tobacco bag stringing was a common activity in many communities.

“Because the labor was not physically demanding and could be done at home, the work attracted many women, children, and others who needed money to supplement their farm incomes, or who could not find work in nearby factories and mills. Tobacco bag stringers would thread the string into both sides [of the top opening of the bag], enabling the smoker to pull on the ends to close the bags. Experienced stringers were remarkably efficient. One woman from West Durham, N.C. remembered working only in her spare time and still stringing as many as a thousand bags a day, for which she earned about 50 cents.”

All that stringing was undone by quilters, who, after the bags had been emptied of their contents, took them apart, washed them, often dyed them, and sewed them back together into a quilt top. The uniform rectangles readily lent themselves to one-patch quilt patterns such as Rail Fence, Streak of Lightning, or Brick Wall.

 

Email this page


Click here to return to top.

Archived blogs:

Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor

See other archived columns here

facebook Follow QuiltFestival on Twitter Follow QuiltFestival on YouTube Instagram

Back to top

7660 Woodway, Suite 550 • Houston, Texas 77063 U.S.A.
Telephone (1) 713.781.6864 • Fax (1) 713.781.8182 • e-mail: shows@quilts.com
To request a free informational postcard, contact us.
Please specify which show you are interested in.