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When tobacco was first planted in Jamestown, Spanish tobacco was selling for eighteen shillings per pound. Virginia tobacco was inferior in quality, but it was assessed in England at ten shillings per pound. On the basis of these high prices the Virginia Company of London agreed to allow the Virginia planters three shillings per pound, in trade at the magazine in Jamestown, for the best grades.
Even though it seemed that the London Company was getting the lions share, these prices proved to be very profitable for the colonists and the infant tobacco industry increased very rapidly. During the period 1615-1622 tobacco exports increased from 2,300 to 60,000 pounds, and by 1630 the volume had risen to 1,500,000. Meanwhile prices had fallen as rapidly as production and exports had increased. In 1625 tobacco was selling for about two shillings per pound, but in 1630 merchants were reported to be buying it for less than one penny per pound.
It was quite obvious that the fall in prices was due to overproduction. The English first attempted to alleviate the condition in 1619 through monopolistic control. Negotiations were conducted with the Virginia Company of London, Henry Somerscales, and Ditchfield in 1625. All were opposed by the colony, except that of the London Company, because the colonists thought that the various proposals would benefit the King and a small group of court favorites at the expense of the planters.
The next move was made by the colony. In an attempt to restrict the production of tobacco, Governor Wyatt ordered that production be limited to 1,000 plants per person in each family in 1621. These same instructions provided that only nine leaves were to be harvested from each plant. Similar laws were enacted in 1622 and again in 1629, but these laws were probably not strictly enforced as prices failed to improve. Undaunted by failure in its first attempt to cope with the situation, the General Assembly made several attempts at price fixing. In 1632 tobacco prices in the colony were fixed at six pence per pound in exchange for English goods; in 1633 it was increased to nine pence.
The 1639 crop was so large that the legislature ordered all of the bad and half of the good tobacco destroyed; merchants were required to accept fifty pounds of tobacco per 100 of indebtedness. English goods were to be exchanged for tobacco at a minimum rate of three pence per pound. The minimum rate of the 1640 crop was fixed at twelve pence. Such legislation failed to meet with the approval of the home government and in 1641 tobacco averaged about two pence per pound.
Following the depression of 1639 tobacco prices failed to rise above three pence, and probably never averaged more than two pence per pound for the next sixty years. To prevent the complete ruination of the tobacco planters, the General Assembly established fixed rates for tobacco in the payment of certain fees. In 1645 these fees were payable in tobacco rated at one and one-half pence per pound; ten years later the rate had increased only a half pence. The war with Holland, restrictions on the Dutch trade, and the plague in England brought forth another serious depression in the colonies in the 1660’s. In 1665 the tobacco fleet did not go to the colonies on account of the plague in London. Tobacco prices dropped to one pence per pound.
- Upon canoes.
- By upland boats.
- By wagons.
- Rolling the hogshead.
PLANTATION TOBACCO HOUSES AND PUBLIC WAREHOUSES
- The common tobacco house.
- Tobacco hanging on a scaffold.
- The operation of prizing.
- Inside of a tobacco house, showing the tobacco hanging to cure.
- An outside view of a public warehouse.
- Showing the process of inspection.
This new depression stirred the Virginia legislature. In 1662 the Assembly prohibited the planting of tobacco after the last of June, provided that Maryland would do the same. Maryland rejected the idea. This would have eliminated a great deal of inferior tobacco, for much of the tobacco planted in July seldom fully matures before it must be harvested to save it from the frost. The planters in both colonies continued to produce excessive crops and the depression became more acute. Led by Virginia, the North Carolina and Maryland legislatures prohibited the cultivation of tobacco in 1666. Lord Baltimore again refused to permit a cessation in Maryland, consequently Virginia and North Carolina repealed their legislation. Instead of cessation the Virginia crop was so large in 1666 that 100 vessels were not enough to export the crop. The possibility of another enormous crop in 1667 was eliminated by a severe storm that destroyed two-thirds of the crop. However, the glutted market resulting from the large crop grown in 1666 caused prices to fall to a half pence per pound.
In the 1670’s prices climbed to one and one-half pence, but a tremendous crop in 1680 glutted the market again. The crop was said to have been so large that it would have supplied the demand for the next two years, even if none were produced in 1681. The General Assembly once again came to the aid of the planter by rating tobacco in payment of debts at one and one-fifth pence in 1682, and two pence in payment of quit-rents in 1683. Once again Virginia renewed attempts to bring about a cessation of production, but the English government refused to permit such action claiming that it would stimulate foreign production and thereby reduce the revenue to the Crown. In April, 1682 the General Assembly convened but was prorogued by Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Chicheley a week later, when it was apparent that the members were determined to discuss nothing but the cessation of tobacco. A week later a series of plant cuttings broke out in Gloucester County followed by others in New Kent and Middlesex counties. Approximately 10,000 hogsheads of tobacco were destroyed before these riots were put down by the militia. Probably as a result of this destructive act, prices rose to two and a half pence in 1685, but a bumper crop of over 18,000,000 pounds in 1688, the largest ever produced to that date, caused prices to drop to one penny per pound in 1690.
Throughout most of the seventeenth century the tobacco planters were plagued with the problem of overproduction and low prices. To add to their woes the entire eighteenth century was one of periodic wars either in Europe or in America, or both. King William’s War ended in 1697 and the following year tobacco prices soared to twenty shillings per hundred pounds and prices remained good for the next few years. The outbreak of Queen Anne’s War and another 18,000,000 pound crop ushered in another depression. Several thousand hogsheads of tobacco shipped on consignment in 1704 brought no return at all, and the next year many of the planters sold their tobacco for one-fourth of a penny per pound. Instead of attempting to limit production in an effort to relieve the market conditions, these low prices caused the planters to increase production as they attempted to meet their obligations. In 1709 tobacco production reached an all-time high of 29,000,000 pounds.
The Peace of Utrecht in 1713 seems to have brought little relief. Tobacco prices failed to improve until after the passage of the inspection act in 1730. In 1731 tobacco sold for as much as twelve shillings six pence per hundred pounds, despite the fact that Virginia exported 34,000,000 pounds. In a further attempt to improve the quality and the price of tobacco the General Assembly ordered the constables in each district to enforce the law forbidding the planters to harvest suckers. Anyone found tending suckers after the last of July was to be heavily penalized. These two measures seem to have produced the desired effects; in 1736 tobacco sold for fifteen shillings per hundred pounds.
Unlike Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War seemed to stimulate tobacco prices and they remained relatively good for a number of years after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. During the early 1750’s merchants paid up to twenty shillings per hundred pounds, even though Virginia had been exporting from 38,000,000 to 53,000,000 pounds annually. During the French and Indian War the belligerents agreed to continue the tobacco trade, but in spite of this arrangement there were unusual price fluctuations owing primarily to inflation and occasional poor crops. In 1755 a period of inflation was created when Virginia resorted to the printing press for currency. At the same time war operations hampered production and only about one-half of the usual annual crop was produced, and tobacco prices rose to twenty shillings per hundred weight. During the years of peace just prior to the American Revolution, tobacco averaged about three pence per pound and never fell below two pence. With the outbreak of hostilities the General Assembly prohibited the exportation of tobacco to the British Empire.
Frequent overproduction and the numerous wars during the eighteenth century seem to have caused more violent price fluctuations than those of the previous century. Although the American colonies did not participate in all of the wars involving England, all of them had their effects upon the colonies. Virginia depended primarily upon England to transport her tobacco crop and during the war years there was a frequent shortage of ships used for the tobacco trade. As this cut off the tobacco supply to the foreign markets, many of them began to grow their supply of tobacco.
The tobacco crops were small almost every year during the Revolution. Owing to the increase in the demand for foodstuffs many of the planters switched from tobacco to wheat. During the first year of the war tobacco exports dropped from 55,000,000 to 14,500,000 pounds. It has been said that for the entire period 1776-1782 Virginia’s exports were less than her exports of a single year before the Revolution. Wartime prices and inflation caused tobacco prices to increase from eighteen shillings per hundred pounds in 1775 to 2,000 shillings, in Continental currency, in 1781. An official account in the latter part of 1780 related that twenty-five shillings per hundred pounds in specie was considered a very substantial price. A very small crop in 1782 was followed by one that topped any of the pre-war crops, and by 1787 prices had fallen to fifteen pence per pound. Prices dropped to $12.00 in 1791, and a period of relatively low prices continued until 1797 when prices increased as a result of an extensive shift from tobacco to wheat. In 1800 prices dropped to $7.40 per hundred pounds as Virginia exported a near record crop of over 78,000 hogsheads of tobacco.