Just before the New Year, signs popped up all over downtown Durham informing us that we could no longer smoke on public sidewalks or public property or, like, anywhere. Not even e-cigs. Not even when we’re drunk and waiting for our Lyft. Smokers, those ne’er-do-wells of polite society, would henceforth be banished to alleys, no longer permitted to pollute the fresh air the rest of us breathe. 

This development isn’t altogether surprising, but it is somewhat ironic. Durham, after all, is a city literally built on tobacco—a city that wouldn’t exist without it. 

So as Durham severs the last of its ties with Nicotiana tabacum, we wanted to remember a love affair older than the city itself—one that put Durham on the map (even if it killed many hundreds of thousands of people in the process). 


1849  Dr. Bartlett Durham donates land for a railway station, a vital development to the future tobacco trade. 

1854  Robert Morris builds Durham’s first tobacco factory, producing Best-Flavored Smoking Tobacco. 

1862  John Ruffin Green buys Morris’s company and renames it Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco. His packages carry the image of a bull, a logo found on tins of Coleman’s Durham mustard. 

1865  The South surrenders the Civil War. Green receives orders from soldiers who had sampled his brightleaf tobacco products while in Durham. 

1869  Durham is incorporated. Green takes on William Thomas Blackwell as a partner, then dies. Blackwell adds James R. Day and Julian Carr as partners and changes the company’s name to W.T. Blackwell and Company, which manufactures Bull Durham smoking tobacco—and becomes known as Old Bull. The brand’s bull logo is advertised in baseball fields, often behind where pitchers warmed up, an area that becomes known as the bullpen. 

1874  Washington Duke moves his family’s tobacco operation to Durham. 

1884  The Dukes buy a Bonsack machine, which revolutionizes cigarette manufacturing. 

1889  W. Duke and Sons merges with four other tobacco manufacturers to create the American Tobacco Company, which at its inception produces 92 percent of U.S. cigarettes. 

1890  Duke promises Trinity College $85,000 if it moves to Durham instead of Raleigh. Julian Carr throws in 50 acres of land. 

1899  W. Duke and Sons acquires Union Tobacco Company, whose assets include W.T. Blackwell and Company. ATC also purchases Liggett & Myers. 

1911  The ATC runs afoul of the Sherman Antitrust Act and breaks into four companies: ATC, Liggett & Myers, R.J. Reynolds, and P. Lorillard. 

1916  Charles Penn becomes American Tobacco’s vice president of manufacturing and creates Lucky Strike. 

1918  ATC produces more than 2 million pounds of tobacco for the War Department each month to supply to soldiers during World War I.  

1924  James Duke, now retired, creates a $40 million endowment for Trinity College, which renames itself Duke University. 

1947  Durham begins a decade-plus-long economic slide that hits manufacturing hard.  

1957  The Old Bull plant ceases production. 

1958  R.J. Reynolds surpasses American Tobacco as the leading cigarette manufacturer in the U.S. As tobacco use declines, American Tobacco invests in liquor, life insurance, office supplies, and hardware, among other things. 

1968  Components of ATC are reorganized into American Brands. 

1987  ATC’s Durham plant, which made Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes, ceases production. All of its cigarette production is concentrated in Reidsville. 

1999  Liggett & Myers quits making cigarettes in Durham and moves production to Mebane, ending Durham’s run as a tobacco hub. 

2004  The American Tobacco Campus reopens with businesses and restaurants.  

2009  The General Assembly passes a law requiring enclosed areas of most restaurants and bars to be smoke-free and giving counties the option to ban smoking in public spaces. 

2016  The smoking rule is expanded to include e-cigs. 

2017  The Durham County Board of Commissioners approves a Board of Health policy that forbids all tobacco usage on city or county property, parks and trails, hospital grounds, and sidewalks, effective July 1, 2018. Violators are subject to $50 fines. As best we can tell, no one notices.

Dec. 2019  Signs go up on downtown sidewalks. 


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One reply on “Quickbait: In Which We (Not So?) Fondly Recall Durham’s Love Affair With Tobacco”

  1. Is the reference to “Coleman’s Durham mustard” actually about Colman’s mustard? If so, what is the Durham connection?? Just the bull image?

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