Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When Tobacco was King

Today I took photos for a new sign going in at Port Tobacco. This sign will focus on trade and the presence of European goods in Port Tobacco. It is important that the artifacts displayed are readily recognizable to all members of the public. Possible artifacts to be included are: the piece of Spanish coin, the 3D rendering of the tin-glazed bowl, and tobacco pipes. Pipes were made in several countries including the U.S., but tobacco itself was used as currency in trade all over the world.

The Chesapeake was largely settled by tobacco farmers in the 17th century with many planning to make their fortune and return to England. The worth of goods, services, court fees, and even people's labor were all described in terms of pounds of tobacco. When demand across the globe was high, farmers grew rich. It was often more economical to grow raw tobacco and buy goods from Europe than it was to devote time and resources to manufacturing them in the colonies. Even tobacco itself was imported back to the Americas after it was processed into smoking tobacco.

However, the system eventually broke down. Next season's crop of tobacco was often pledged to a merchant in exchange for this year's goods. Tobacco also used up the nutrients in the soil quickly. Rather than resting an area or planting other crops to rejuvenate the soil, farmers purchased more land. These practices sunk many planters deep into debt that lasted generations. Farmer's tried to make more money to pay off the debts by growing more tobacco, but the market became glutted. In the 1660's, the glut, plus other factors such as regulations on shipping and importing tobacco, taxes, merchants' manipulation of prices, and the drop-off in demand, caused the price of tobacco to fall to the point where farmer's could not make a living.

A cycle of boom and bust developed over decades. Tobacco continued to be grown in the Chesapeake, but each boom was a little less enriching than the last.


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