Harmon’s Histories: Plug tobacco was all the rage in 1880s Montana
I can say with a considerable measure of confidence that few, if any, of us alive today could possibly suggest that tobacco use is anything other than an unhealthy choice.
Even before the official pronouncement by the nation’s surgeon general in the early 1960s, most all of us knew smoking and other forms of tobacco use were a poor choice. Despite that, many of us (including myself) continued the bad habit for decades. I quit in the 1990s.
My confession and modern-day facts aside, I do have to marvel at the creative advertising for tobacco (particularly plug tobacco) in the 19th century.
First, for the uninitiated, “plug tobacco” is simply chopped up tobacco which is combined with molasses or some type of sticky sweetener so it can be pressed into a solid block (the plug), from which the user can bite off a chunk and place between gum and lip.
I know – it’s rather disgusting. I’ll give you a moment to recover. (Insert long pause, here).
OK, let’s continue.
Back in the 1800s, there were name brands like Heart’s Delight, Little Breeches, Piper Chew, Silk Finish, Gold Block and Blue Grass. But my favorite newspaper ads of all time have to be those of the “Battle Ax” brand.
One featured a courtroom setting, with a lawyer and his miserably disheveled client approaching the bench. The attorney confesses of his client, “He don’t chew Battle Ax, yer Honor,” to which the judge replies, “He looks it!”
The ad copy then reads, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but ignorance of Battle Ax is your misfortune – not a crime – and the only penalty is your loss of quantity as well as quality when you buy any other kind of Chewing Tobacco.”
Another version called Battle Ax, “The Old Soldier’s Favorite,” suggests only a small amount of the soldier’s pension would “go a long way if you chew Battle Ax.” It claimed to offer “The biggest piece of really high-grade tobacco ever sold for 5 cents; almost twice as large as the other fellow’s inferior brand.”
One of those targeted “inferior brands” was Piper Heidsieck Plug Tobacco. It marketed itself not only as “the best” 5-cent chew around, but it also came in a “champagne flavor!”
Aside from the advertising, there were numerous news articles on tobacco use. One, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, featured Thomas Edison’s confession of his first “chew.”
Egged on by another boy, Edison and a companion were told to put a plug in their mouths, chew vigorously, and then swallow.
“We gulped it down and then that young rascal fairly rolled down the bank with laughter, while we soon rolled down the other side, sicker, I suppose, than any of us had been in our lives before or since.”
One of Montana’s earliest newspapers, The Madisonian (published in Virginia City), predicted in an 1884 edition that plug tobacco and other modern inventions might well result in the demise of the saloon business.
The article centered on the supposed invention by a Pennsylvania farmer of a whiskey packet (or plug). “When one can carry his whiskey in chunks in one’s pockets and take his chew at pleasure, there will be no further use for saloons!”
Another anecdote, this one in the Danbury News, told of the beauty of the sea, but then admitted “it is the sea that causes thousands of strong men to swear, chew plug, drink rum, go without suspenders, and smell of tar.”
Once you had the habit, it was very hard to break. But there were entrepreneurs advertising right alongside the tobacco companies with their proposed cures.
“Don’t tobacco spit and smoke your life away,” read an 1897 ad in Montana newspapers. The Sterling Remedy company with outlets in Chicago and New York, offered to send a booklet and a free sample of “No-To-Bac” to your door at no cost.
No-To-Bac would not only help you quit tobacco use, but would make “weak men strong, magnetic, and full of new life and vigor.” What’s more, “many gain 10 pounds in 10 days.”
I don’t know about being filled with “new life and vigor,” but I do confess when I quit I certainly gained “10 pounds in 10 days,” or maybe more. The years since have been filled with dieting. But that’s another subject for another day.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.