Saturday 29 August 2015

Cutting Smoking

It’s one of those objects that takes a lot of explanation for the younger set.

Today’s hidden history artifact is a tobacco cutter, manufactured by the Enterprise Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia, around the mid-1880s. This rugged device with its cast iron body and sharpened blade was a General Store staple, securely mounted to the store counter so that clerks could cut off plugs of tobacco for customers at their request.

And boy, did Kings County shoppers request a LOT of tobacco.

A casual look through several of the store ledgers in our collection shows tobacco being purchased with almost every order:
  • Barrel of flour, plus a plug of tobacco
  • 4 yards of cloth, plus a plug of tobacco
  • Horse liniment, plus a plug of tobacco

Smoking was so pervasive at the time that tobacco cutters were in constant use and had to be well made to handle the workload. This weighty model from the Enterprise Mfg. Co. in Pennsylvania (patented July 25, 1871) fit the bill nicely. The brand was obviously a favorite of storekeepers throughout Canada and the US, as a host of Enterprise’s devices can still be found available for purchase in online antique auctions. They may show a bit of wear or ‘patina’ from their use, but nothing to suggest the daily workout that they undertook to supply our ancestors with a bit of tabaccy.

Though our ancestors were extremely familiar with the tobacco cutter, our modern Kings County audience does not recognize the tool at all. For most of our young visitors, tobacco is the mysterious item hidden in steel shelving units at the local convenience store (requiring a photo ID and a note from the parish priest before purchasing can occur). To explain the tobacco cutter involves explaining the popularity of smoking in the past; the growing and transport of tobacco from the South; and the preparation of tobacco by the smoker (i.e. papers, matches, and a spot far from the granary).

Of course, our tobacco explanation always finishes with an admonition that they not try any of this at home.
It’s our modern way of cutting smoking.

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