Cigarettes Are Central to the History of Corporate PowerBreaking News
tags: books, corporate history, cigarettes, tobacco, business history
In Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism, author Nan Enstad reveals how the definitive moments in the expansion of corporate power took place through one of capitalism’s deadliest commodities. Challenging the centrality of the entrepreneur to the story, Enstad instead presents a global history in which Jim Crow, jazz and empire are central to the rise of the mass-produced cigarette.
In 1916, Lee Parker left his father’s tobacco farm in Ahoskie, North Carolina, for Shanghai, China. He wrote sixty years later in his memoir, “I was fresh from the United States, sent by BAT, the British American Tobacco Company to ‘put a cigarette between the lips of every man and woman in China.’” Parker’s father had sent him to Wake Forest College in hopes he would, upon graduation, join the small white professional class. But even with a college degree, “jobs was hard to come by for a country fellow,” Parker recalled. He had heard that a buyer at the tobacco market in Wilson, North Carolina, hired young men for jobs in China, so he borrowed five dollars from his brother and made the journey to Wilson. After an interview on the tobacco warehouse floor that lasted “between thirty seconds and two minutes,” Parker’s life path veered sharply east, and he headed to China to work as a cigarette salesman for one of the world’s first multinational corporations.
Parker was one of hundreds of young white men who journeyed from the bright leaf tobacco–growing states of Virginia and North Carolina to work for BAT-China from 1905 to 1937, the very years that cigarette consumption skyrocketed worldwide. Southerners filled positions in every department. Richard Henry Gregory from Granville County, North Carolina, ran the agricultural department, where US Southerners introduced bright leaf tobacco and the flue curing system to Chinese farmers. Ivy Riddick, from Raleigh, North Carolina, managed Shanghai’s massive cigarette factories during the 1920s, a decade of dramatic strikes and anti-imperialist protest. James N. Joyner, born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, worked in sales in China from 1912 to 1935, including heading two large sales divisions. And James A. Thomas of Reidsville, North Carolina, was at the helm, steering the China branch of BAT during its years of rapid expansion. For every career man, there were dozens of other, mostly rural white Southerners who worked for BAT-China for one or more four-year terms; hundreds of Southerners went to China over the course of BAT-China’s tenure there.
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