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[Note: A PDF of this post can also be found HERE.]
We will introduce, in a future post, a dromedary that came to Winston-Salem in 1913 and changed the city forever. But “Old Joe Camel” was late to the party. Farther east down Tobacco Road in Durham, a Bull claimed that city for its own, sixty years before “Joe” was even conceived.
John Ruffin Green, a tobacco peddler in the 1850s, created Bull Durham smoking tobacco at his J.R. Green Factory. The bull logo seems to have come from “Durham Mustard” containers from Durham, England. As armies of the North and South passed through Durham, the Civil War soldiers found the superior tobacco and continued to ask for it after the War. Soon, Green’s business grew bigger than he could manage alone.
In 1867, William Thomas Blackwell and James R. Day each paid $1,500 for one-third shares of the company. Shortly after, Green died from tuberculosis. Blackwell purchased Green’s share of the company and the trademark for “Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco” from the Green family for $2,292, officially beginning the W.T. Blackwell Company. Blackwell and Day continued to expand their business.
Then in 1870, Julian Shakespeare Carr joined as a third equal partner. Blackwell was thirty-two, Day thirty, and Carr twenty-six. The assets of “W. T. Blackwell and Company” were about $30,000.
This partnership was a highly successful venture. The first big company in Durham, it sparked the town’s tobacco craze. It created the first tobacco warehouse in Durham in 1871 and a market that sold more tobacco than any other place in North Carolina for many years. It brought tobacco farmers to the city, allowing Blackwell to buy more tobacco than it previously could. No longer needing to get tobacco from Virginia, the company expanded and continued to boost businesses in Durham. The tobacco warehouse encouraged others to start warehouses of their own, adding to the city’s tobacco success.
In 1874, the partners built a new factory that was profitable for both their company and Durham. And Durham became a center where tobacco farmers could sell their crop at high prices. By 1876, Durham had nine tobacco warehouses.
Bull Durham brought jobs to the city and demand for housing and public services. The leaf tobacco market brought banks in 1878. Around this time, Blackwell also introduced telephones in Durham. Tobacco industry growth called for a cotton industry and tobacco bag making. Durham got its nickname, “Bull City.”
In 1878, Blackwell expanded its factory, adding new technologies. One was the “Bull Jack,” a machine that filled, labeled, and weighed bags of tobacco. John Thomas Dalton, a self-taught engineer, designed a machine, the “bow tier,” to tie a bow around the tobacco-filled bag. The bow tier cut annual labor cost from $172,000 to $58,000. These machines helped the firm to meet the high demand for its tobacco.
During these years, Blackwell fought a trademark battle against Virginia tobacco interests. Virginians had dominated North Carolina for a long time and feared its competition; the Blackwell Company knew that if its trademark were pirated the firm might fail. Litigation went on for fifteen years before Blackwell won - at a cost of about $100,000. Still, the success of Bull Durham repaid Blackwell many times over for the legal fees.
Even though the company enjoyed high profits, the three partners eventually sold out to pursue other ventures. W.T. Blackwell and Julian Carr bought Day’s share in 1878 for $50,000.[i]
In 1883 Blackwell produced around 5 million pounds of tobacco, up from 60,000 pounds in 1869. Durham had grown into a town of 5,000 from a village of 300 people in those years.
In 1883, W. T. Blackwell sold for $100,000 to M. E. M’Dowell and Company, a Philadelphia jobbing house, highly capitalized and with various branches. A brother-in-law of Blackwell wrote, “ . . he could easily have gotten $300 - 500,000 for it.”
As tobacco boomed in Durham, Blackwell financed the construction of several hundred workers’ houses and other buildings. He actively supported creating Durham County from parts of Orange and Wake Counties. He promoted railroads that would connect Durham with lines to the north and south. In 1884, he started the state-chartered Bank of Durham, capitalizing it at $50,000. It financed many local warehousemen and leaf dealers. Yet Blackwell generously made too many loans with poor collateral. Worse, he speculated in leaf tobacco. When this venture failed, the bank closed in 1888, driving several businesses into bankruptcy and sadly bringing about his failure.[iv]
Julian S. Carr also sold to M’Dowell, but he had more faith in the future of tobacco than did his two former partners. In 1884, Carr purchased stock in a separate new corporation and became its president. Keenly aware of the name value, M’Dowell obtained a North Carolina charter for “Blackwell’s Durham Tobacco Company” capitalized with $500,000. Under Carr, the company “developed mass production, excelled in creative advertising, and established world-wide sales.”
The Blackwell firm grew in value for the 31 years ending 1898 at almost 24.5% annually (not including dividends). A London School of Economics study showed that the tobacco industry market returns for the 115 years ending in 2014 was 14.6%. So, the consistent profitability of tobacco stretches over at least 147 years.
Around the time Blackwell sold out, Blackwell Co. began to compete with the local up-and-coming American Tobacco, headed by James “Buck” Duke. Perhaps fearing Duke’s now giant American Tobacco Trust, in 1898 Carr sold his shares in the Blackwell Company and the rights to the “Bull Durham” brand to Union Tobacco Company for $2.5 million, a low price for the internationally famous brand.
Carr became one of the state's wealthiest people, with textile, banking (Durham’s First National Bank), railroad, public utility (Electric Lighting Company), and newspaper businesses. In 1909, Carr purchased the Alberta Cotton Mill in West End by Chapel Hill. In 1913, after extending electricity to the town, it was named Carrboro in his honor.
Carr was also instrumental in founding Duke University. Trinity College, in rural Randolph County, struggled after the Civil War, and Methodist laymen worked for its survival. Carr signed a note to prevent a mortgage foreclosure in 1880. He was elected a trustee of Trinity College in 1883, and for the next decade was a benefactor and administrator of the struggling school. He, along with Buck Duke’s father, Washington Duke, won support to move the school to Durham in 1892. Carr gifted 62 acres of land for the school site. Trinity was renamed Duke University in 1924.[v]
Union Tobacco competed unsuccessfully with the huge American Tobacco Company that Buck Duke created, and only a short while after buying Blackwell, Union sold to American Tobacco. American controlled many of the most popular brands of tobacco. It continued to develop new advertising campaigns for Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco.
Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco’s repetitive advertising succeeded with its strong branding and logo. First John Ruffin Green and later the Blackwell Co. used the bull as the logo for “Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco.” With the logo, the Blackwell Co. extended the branding idea, putting it on all advertisements and labels. It advertised Bull Durham in a new fashion. One of the company’s first huge campaigns pictured the bull in magazines, trade journals, and periodicals.
In addition, Blackwell Co. was among the first to have a large-scale outdoor advertising campaign. These ads started in the late 1870s - giant pictures of the bull with catchy sayings. The logo would become one of most recognizable product images in the country.
This 1914 display ad in The Washington Post appealed to the experienced smoker who preferred to roll his own cigarettes – projecting a sophisticated image of a “thirty-third degree smoke veteran” wise enough to tailor his cigarette to his personal taste.
The “Roll Your Own” ads were one of the most successful for Bull Durham. This ad program came at an ideal time; product sales were low due to the competition from the new machine-made cigarette. Ads during the Great Depression showed the low price, only a nickel per bag, and finely dressed, upper class people. This ad campaign at first had doubters, but sales exploded. The ads urged middle and lower-class smokers to buy Bull Durham to copy the upper class, using the desire for a better life to boost sales.
When American Tobacco took control, it continued Blackwell’s success with even more innovative ads. It connected baseball, the nation’s favorite pastime, and tobacco. In the early 1900s, many players chewed tobacco during games. This link between Bull Durham and baseball may have led to the word “bullpen.”
American Tobacco’s advertisements made Bull Durham a familiar name to baseball fans around the nation. American Tobacco set up wooden bull ad signs in nearly every major league stadium during the 1912 season. American gave a $50 prize ($1,400 in 2021) to any player that hit the bull. It offered free tobacco to any player who hit a home run.
The advertising campaign was highly successful. American Tobacco gave away over $23,400 in money and tobacco, but this was only about .18% of sales, estimated at $13 million annually, about 330 million bags of Bull Durham. [vi]
Before Bull Durham, a huge marketing campaign was considered highly risky. However, the Blackwell Co., and later American Tobacco, showed future businesses the success that came from branding a product and keeping it before consumers. The company, and especially Julian Carr, used every conceivable advertising angle to promote Bull Durham. These techniques were unique for their time and greatly influenced modern day advertising.
Bull Durham’s success did not go unnoticed by R.J. Reynolds. In 1913, he mounted his national Camel ad campaign, the first for a cigarette.
The Bull Durham brand of loose-leaf smoking tobacco was sold until 1988 when American Tobacco “put the Bull out to pasture.” The brand often changed ownership, but it remained one of the most successful tobacco brands of all time.[vii]
Just as the iconic brand was taken from store shelves, Hollywood produced the 1988 film, Bull Durham, starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. It brought national attention to both the famous tobacco product and the Durham Bulls, Durham’s minor league baseball team.[viii]