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Bull Durham Tobacco, To the Rhine and Back

Jessica A. Bandel

“Contribute! Organize your club, your church, your town, your office, your factory and give the boys just a little comfort—their favorite smoke.” So reads a portion of a September 1917 advertisement in the News and Observer, kicking off a drive to provide American soldiers with one of their favorite items: American tobacco. Through an arrangement with the American Tobacco Company out of Durham, interested parties could provide an American soldier with all of the following at twenty cents less than market value: 2 packages of Lucky Strike cigarettes, 3 packages of Bull Durham tobacco, 3 books Bull Durham cigarette papers, 1 tin Tuxedo tobacco, and 4 books of Tuxedo brand cigarette papers.

Newspapers throughout the state ran similar ads and programs, calling on civilians here at home to “do their bit” by contributing to the numerous “tobacco funds.” But these efforts still fell far short of demand, leading the country to take more direct action to keep the boys supplied with cigarettes. “Our government has requested that we put at the disposal of the War Department…Bull Durham tobacco and we have complied—fully, gladly,” a widely-circulated 1918 letter from the company stated. American Tobacco withdrew their product from the U.S. market entirely, producing more than two million pounds of Bull Durham tobacco for the government each month.

For the troops deployed overseas, Bull Durham was seen not only as an item of comfort but also as a battlefield necessity. Studies of the time purportedly demonstrated that soldiers could go an additional two hours between meals if they smoked, the tobacco serving as an appetite suppressant. As such, it was distributed to soldiers as part of their rations, each man receiving two pouches per week. For homesick soldiers, particularly the Tar Heel boys, the tobacco could not have been a more welcomed sight. “I see two things here that remind me of home, ‘Bull Durham’ smoking tobacco and ‘Mecca Cigarettes,’” wrote Pvt. Justin Hawkins, of the 53rd Pioneer Infantry, to his mother in Guildford County.

To calm the fears of parents back home, soldiers reassured them that they were well cared for. Littleton native Thomas Walker, a mechanic with the 323rd Infantry, promised his father that he was getting along quite well: “We get plenty of eats—just all you want. We get plenty of daily papers…. They also issue us plenty of Bull Durham smoking tobacco and American cigars and cigarettes.”

The doughboys’ seemingly endless supply of good American tobacco had unanticipated consequences as well. In no time, French children connected the sight of an American soldier with tobacco, prompting them to learn at least a couple of words of English: “tobac” and “cigarette.” “[T]hat is the first thing an American soldier hears when he meets one on the street,” wrote Greenville native Seth D. Hooker, of the 607th Motor Transport Corps. “They generally want it for ‘papa’ but even the smallest kids are seen smoking.” Even German soldiers craved Bull Durham. Charlotte native Lt. Dellman Hood, of the 307th Field Signal Battalion, 82nd Division, described an odd scene to his parents in a letter dated July 28, 1918: “[T]he Boche prisoners all call for Bull Durham tobacco. One of them traded his steel helmet, gun, bayonet, gas-mask and his iron cross for two sacks of tobacco.” 

In 1919, Bull Durham tobacco crossed the Rhine, traveling deep into the heart of Germany with the Army of Occupation where it was introduced to the German population. As in France, German kids seemed to be the most eager to make a trade with the doughboys, Lt. Bryce Beard of Salisbury remarking that “a sack of Bull Durham could buy dad’s helmet.” By war’s end, perhaps no other American product had achieved such a high level of international name recognition quite like Bull Durham. From training camps to Germany and back again, Bull Durham tobacco comforted American troops every step of the way and firmly rooted itself in the returning veteran community for decades to come.

Want to learn a little more about the tobacco industry in North Carolina? Consider paying a visit to the Duke Homestead, a State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, where you will learn more about the home, factories, and farm of Washington Duke, the father of American Tobacco Company founder James Buchanan Duke. While you're in town, check out the American Tobacco Campus, the historic core of the tobacco factory that has been converted into retail, rental, and event space.

Note: This article is not an endorsement of tobacco usage in any form.