Past Times

North Carolina once led in cigarette manufacturing

Inspectors checked cigarette packs and put them, 10 at a time, into empty and waiting cartons.
Inspectors checked cigarette packs and put them, 10 at a time, into empty and waiting cartons. N&O Photo

A drive past downtown Durham no longer carries the sweet scent of tobacco, but for many years, it was the city’s hallmark. In 1949, N&O writer Jane Hall gave readers a thorough explanation of modern cigarette manufacturing.

That cigarette you’re about to light – if you smoke – is just one of an estimated 392,000,000,000 made in the United States this year.

Moreover, when you light it, you can do so with patriotic pride, for a large portion of the bright leaf therein was grown in North Carolina soil, it is wrapped in cigarette paper made in North Carolina by the Ecusta Paper Corporation, and the chances are it was manufactured within the borders of this State.

Roughly speaking, 60 per cent of the cigarettes made in the United States are manufactured in North Carolina, which means that over two hundred billions of this year’s estimated total of little white tobacco-filled tubes were made in Tar Heelia.

This torrent of cigarettes, which poured from the State’s borders across America and around the world, had its headwaters in four plants in the State – R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Camels and Cavaliers at Winston-Salem; American Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Lucky Strikes at Reidsville and Durham; and Liggett and Myers, manufacturers of Chesterfields at Durham. Phillip Morris, the fourth ranking manufacturer behind America’s “Big Three,” doesn’t have a plant in North Carolina.

Reynolds is the only company that maintains all its manufacturing plants and main office within the borders of the State.

Its a long and intricate way from the bright leaf in the farmers’ fields of North Carolina to the finished package of cigarettes which eventually finds its way into his and your pocket or handbag. In general, the process is the same for all cigarettes, although the blends of various brands are jealously guarded trade secrets, as are certain developments in the machinery used.

Competing companies sometimes go to strange extremes to guard their so-called “secrets,” but one thing is certain: The actual manufacture of cigarettes is one of the most highly mechanized processes to which any agricultural product is subjected.

Mr. Tobacco Farmer out across North Carolina handles his leaf repeatedly and tenderly through numerous steps from the winter plant bed to late summer warehouse floors – such as weeding, transplanting, suckering, topping, worming, poisoning, priming, handing, looping, barning, stacking, grading, tieing and hauling – but once it reaches the cigarette factory quite the contrary is true. Put through a steam bath and redrying process, the tobacco leaf is turned over to a series of machines that complete the processing with scarcely a hand again touching the leaf until the cigarette is pulled from the pack for lighting. The machines make it a big, big business in which competition is fierce and in which only the smartest survive.

After purchase on the summer-hot auction floors of North Carolina, the Tar Heel and other domestic tobaccos are taken to the companies’ redrying plants where they are passed by conveyor belt through a huge box-like redrying machine. The redrying machine is divided into several compartments, each maintaining a different temperature. Both dry and steam heat are applied, thus preparing the leaf for proper aging.

Next, the tobaccos are pressed by hydraulic pressure into 1,000-pound hogsheads and are taken to the storage warehouses for aging. After many months of aging, the leaf is taken out of storage and given a vapor or steam bath and precisely blended. Machines remove the stems and still other machines shred the leaf.

Simultaneously, the imported tobaccos, which have also under gone careful preparation, are blended in correct proportion with the domestic tobaccos – and the mixture is ready for manufacture into cigarettes. Most U. S. cigarettes are made of a blend of bright leaf, burley, Maryland, and Turkish tobaccos.

Visitors to the Reynolds plant in Winston-Salem are taken into an enormous room that houses one of the company’s numerous cigarette manufacturing departments. The room is immaculate; the air is fragrant with the odor of tobacco; the roar of machinery fills the room. A look at it, and the whole process takes on a tinge of the miraculous, providing support for the saying that “machines are smarter than people.” Cigarette machinery certainly seems to be.

Overhead, around the outer edges of the room, pairs of oblong buckets move along on a chain conveyor. At a regulated speed, the pairs of buckets dip beneath chutes that bring the blended tobaccos from the upper floor. Once under the chute, the electrically operated chute doors automatically open and drop several pounds of tobacco into each pair of buckets. The buckets then move onward and upward to the overhead level.

If the tobacco supply is low in a given cigarette machine, an electric eye notes the fact and, as the buckets pass over the hopper they dump their load. If not, the buckets, still loaded, pass on to the next machine. So around the circuit of the many cigarette machines until, empty, they reach the chutes again.

Meanwhile, on the right rear side of an ingenious cigarette machine, a bobbin, or wheel, of cigarette paper is running through printers that print the name “Camels” at spaced intervals.

The blended tobacco – sliding from the hopper at the top of the machine – passes an electric magnet, which removes any possible foreign matter, and falls onto a belt which carries it directly to the moving ribbon of cigarette paper. Immediately beyond, the moving ribbon of paper passes a paste wheel, and the paper automatically is pasted and folded around the tobacco.

The embryo cigarette then passes an electric heater which seals the top and next passes under a revolving knife which swiftly and automatically cuts the long tube into exactly and precisely the right cigarette length. The finished cigarette is then tossed out onto a divided belt, each side of which holds 600 cigarettes, which moves before the inspector in front of the machine.

Description takes time – in operation, a cigarette machine makes over 1,000 cigarettes a minute. The little white tubes come popping out quicker than the wink of an eye.

As a matter of whimsical speculation, if anything should go wrong with the knife and the machine couldn’t’ be stopped, it would make a Camel three miles long.

As the finished cigarettes come tumbling out onto the moving belt in front, the inspector puts them in a tray capable of holding 4,000 cigarettes. At regular intervals, she checks them for uniformity in weight, swiftly putting a number of cigarettes in a special container and weighing them on a scale at her right. The machine can be adjusted so that the correct amount of tobacco will flow onto the cigarette paper.

When the tray in front of the inspector is full, she puts a top on it and slides it onto a handtruck at her left and in one almost continuous motion slides an empty tray into the space in front of her. She also keeps records as to the number made in her machine. Thus, it is possible for the superintendent to know at nay given time the number of cigarettes made by the machines in the department.

At regular intervals the finished cigarettes are trucked into the packing department. The cigarettes are put into the familiar wrappers in a packing machine. The flat, already printed and properly cut wrapping paper is carried by a chain under a glue roller where it gets the proper amount of glue at the right places. From the top rear of the machine the aluminum foil, stamped at intervals with the number of the machine, moves down until it reaches a point where the paper is folded around the foil in package shape.

Meanwhile, the trays of finished cigarettes are put into another part of the packing machine where they honeycomb down both the right and left sides until they meet an automatic counter which picks up 20 – and only 20 – at a time. Subsequently, they are plunged into a prepared package. The open packs then pass an electrical detector machine which automatically affixes the seven-cent Federal tax stamp. If, by chance, the machine should fail to affix the stamp, a bell rings and the inspector takes off the offending package.

Moving steadily ahead, the packs are laid flat on a conveyor belt and are carried into a cellophane machine. At the top of the machine are two reels – one of colorless cellophane for the package and the other of narrow red cellophane for the tab. In the machine, the cellophane is cut off and folded around the pack, and sealed on each end as it passes an electric heater. It is then sealed on the side, and moves by conveyor until it reaches an inspector who checks the packs and puts them, 10 at a time, into the empty cartons that are moving past on a belt behind her. More than 100 packs a minute are packaged in the packing machine.

The cartons come to the inspector from another part of the plant. Cigarette cartons, previously printed, are put into an intricate machine that automatically folds them into carton shape, pastes them, and tosses them onto a conveyor belt at the rate of more than 50 a minute.

Carton distributors take them off the belt at intervals and put them in a chute, which takes the empty cartons to inspectors.

The belt carries the filled cartons to a carton inspector for a final check, then they move through a machine that seals the cartons. They are then taken by chain elevator to an overhead conveyor that takes them across the room to a case packer. At the end of the conveyor, a case-packer folds the flat, already prepared cases into shape and the machine automatically fills the cases with 60 cartons of cigarettes (12,000 individual cigarettes), and drops them onto another conveyor belt.

As the cases move down the conveyor belt, they pass a register that counts them and then move into a machine that automatically unfolds the top and bottom of the cases, puts glue in the proper places re-folds the ends into place, and sends the cases onto an automatic scale that weighs them. If the weight is not right (perhaps, a missing carton), a bell rings and an inspector come sand takes the case off.

If all is well, the cases move steadily along up to an overhead conveyor and then into the shipping room – and from there North Carolina’s Camels are shipped all over the world.

The whole process is a marvel of mechanical ingenuity and is fascinating to watch. Shades of Sir Walter Raleigh! In his palmiest days, Sir Walter could never have envisioned a modern cigarette-manufacturing plant. The N&O Dec. 11, 1949

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

  Comments