Film History Essentials: Admiral Cigarette (1897)

What it’s about:

Four men in various costumes sit, talking animatedly, next to an oversized cigarette box and in front of a wall-sized poster that both read “Admiral Cigarette.” Suddenly, the Admiral Cigarette Girl bursts out of the box, smoking a cigarette, and hands out cigarettes to the four men. She grabs a double handful of cigarettes from a pile that one of the men is holding and scatters them across the floor as everyone begins smoking. The men unfurl a banner that reads “WE ALL SMOKE” and they all point to the sign above them.

Why it’s essential:

Technically, the first film advertisements were traveling shots taken from aboard trains, like Black Diamond Express and Empire State Express (both 1896). These were made with the support of various railroad companies, and their production served to promote certain railway lines. They could be considered a sort of early product placement, but they were more than just commercials. They were also entertaining and engaging travel actualities in their own right. The first films that were explicitly ads began to appear in 1897, and one of the earliest of these was for “Admiral Cigarette,” filmed in the Black Maria by William Heise in July. The film is also an artifact of a little-known, but significant, chapter in American history.

James “Buck” Buchanan Duke (see right) had taken over his father, Washington’s, tobacco company in 1880, and soon found that the company couldn’t compete with Bull Durham Tobacco, which had just become the first nationally-recognized tobacco brand. Rather than battle with Bull Durham for the shredded tobacco market, Duke transitioned the company into cigarette production instead. Prior to the mid-1800s, tobacco in the United States was almost exclusively smoked in pipes or cigars, or chewed or dipped. After the Civil War, cigarettes began to gain popularity in some areas, but they had to be rolled by hand, which bottlenecked production.

Duke began to hire on cigarette rollers at competitive wages, growing from 10 rollers in 1882 to over 700 by 1885. Meanwhile, the leading cigarette manufacturer in the country, Allen & Ginter, had offered the incredible sum of $75,000 to anyone who could invent a machine that rolled cigarettes. A young Virginian named James Bonsack dropped out of college to take up the challenge, and by 1881 he had a working machine and a patent for it. However, Allen & Ginter ended up rejecting his machine, concerned about its reliability, reluctant to part with the prize money, and above all, suddenly unsure whether consumers would accept machine-made cigarettes.

In the end, none of the other large cigarette manufacturers were willing to take a chance on a machine-rolled product. But Duke, newest to the industry and with an eye for innovation, signed a contract with Bonsack. One of Bonsack’s machines (see left) took three people to run, and could produce as many cigarettes as 60 experienced rollers while cutting production costs in half. By 1888, Duke had replaced all of his rollers with rolling machines. Bonsack’s machine heralded a revolution much like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had almost a century before.

Duke also saw that his company’s capacity for production could soon outpace demand for the product unless he could create more demand. He began investing a huge percentage of his revenue into advertising. He also installed a print shop in his factory and began including collectible cards in packs of cigarettes that were immensely popular among his target market of boys and young men. Marketing to children had two advantages: They were not already consumers of other, more established tobacco products, and their continued consumption would be the industry’s future as they got older.

As he continued to aggressively advertise his products, and his competitors began to belatedly adopt machine rolling, he was able to undersell everyone thanks to a secret discount agreement with Bonsack. As a result, in 1890 (the same year as the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act) he engineered a merger between his company and the other four largest producers of cigarettes which gave him control of 90% of the market. The new corporation was called the American Tobacco Company. Meanwhile, production of cigarettes had grown a hundred-fold.

In June of 1892, the National Cigarette & Tobacco Company was formed specifically to challenge the ATC’s stranglehold on cigarette sales, in court if necessary. Working with the attorney generals of each state, they took the ATC to court in both New Jersey and New York during the mid-1890s, but these cases, and others like them, ultimately failed. National Cigarette, producers of the “Admiral” brand, would have to face off against American Tobacco in the marketplace.

One of the major battlefields in this war, of course, was advertising. National had the Admiral Cigarette Girl, and her very revealing costume. They had a very pointed slogan: “Not Made by a TRUST.” They had collectible cards in their packs of cigarettes, and, in an early example of merchandising, also produced a promotional set of collectible buttons featuring the hugely-popular “Yellow Kid” character from a hit newspaper comic strip. (This strip, incidentally, was published in both Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s newspapers, which led to them being known as the “yellow kid papers,” which eventually spawned the term “yellow journalism.”)

Of course, they also harnessed the power of the latest technological innovations, as well. A New York-based company, they had a large electrically-lit sign installed atop a building in the middle of Manhattan. And, in 1897, they had one of the first film commercials. This, too, made its way to a Manhattan rooftop, where it was projected on a loop for passersby. The display was so successful as an attention-grabber that the projectionist was detained by police for disrupting traffic on Broadway.

Throughout these years, National Cigarette continued to resist attempts by American Tobacco to buy them out and absorb them. American Tobacco was a genuine giant by now, becoming one of the original 12 members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it was created in 1896. They swallowed up hundreds of companies during the preceding years and the decade that followed.

Their growth, however, was not due only to cigarettes. They, of necessity, had begun diversifying their tobacco holdings. After all, by the end of the decade, cigarettes still made up less than 5 percent of all tobacco sales. Throughout the mid-1890s, American Tobacco was engaged in the “plug wars” as they sought to gain the same level of control over chewing tobacco. By 1898, they had absorbed every major producer of plug tobacco into the Continental Tobacco Company (president: Buck Duke) except for one large hold-out: Liggett & Myers, whose owner personally disliked Duke, and vowed never to sell to him.

Meanwhile, an ex-American Tobacco executive and a group of wealthy backers had started up the Union Tobacco Company as a major rival to Duke and Continental Tobacco. Union’s holdings included Duke’s old foe, Bull Durham Tobacco. In 1898, Union bought National Cigarette & Tobacco as well, adding Admiral Cigarette to their slate of products. And, finally, they talked Liggett & Myers into the fold late in the year.

Then, in March of 1899, Union sold to American and its financial backers were absorbed into the American and Continental Board of Directors. Rumors abounded that the “rivalry” had been a sham designed to draw Duke’s most stubborn competitors together, though Duke denied it, even as he now pivoted his attention to the snuff and cigar markets. The Admiral Cigarette slogan would presumably have to change to “NOW Made by a Trust” as it joined the over 100 cigarette brands that American Tobacco now controlled.

A contemporary political cartoon depicts Duke as a grasping insect: “Conquer or Crush.”

Duke’s holdings continued to increase for several years, both domestically and overseas, until finally the U.S. Department of Justice couldn’t ignore him any longer. In July 1907, they filed suit against the American Tobacco Company for antitrust violations. After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court ordered Duke to dissolve American Tobacco in 1911, on the same day they ordered John D. Rockefeller to dissolve Standard Oil. (U.S. Steel, the other of the three largest companies in the nation at the time, escaped unscathed from similar efforts.)

As for Duke himself, he all but abandoned the tobacco industry, devoting himself instead to the development of an electrical power company he had begun in 1904. In 1924, he established a large endowment, one benificiary of which was Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, an institution his father had also made several large donations to prior to his death. The college’s president, William Few, came to him with a proposal, and Duke agreed on the condition that it be done in honor of his father. So, Trinity College became Duke University.

In a final strange twist, Edison, a habitual cigar-smoker and chewer of tobacco, personally loathed cigarettes, despite holding the copyright for the first cigarette commercial. In 1914, Edison’s good friend Henry Ford asked him to write a letter, giving a scientific explanation of why cigarettes were harmful, as part of Ford’s anti-smoking campaign in his factories. Edison obliged, describing how, unlike with other tobacco products, cigarettes’ paper wrappers gave off toxic, brain-damaging chemicals when burned. He concluded by stating, “I employ no person who smokes cigarettes.” This, however, was not true. After the letter was sent, Edison hurriedly had signs put up in his buildings that read: “Cigarettes Not Tolerated. They Dull The Brain.”

The letter, when published, ignited a firestorm of criticism in the press, largely driven by the powerful tobacco companies. Edison was derided for opining outside of his area of expertise, and Philip Morris Cigarettes even turned a comprehensive refutation of Edison and his claims into a full-page ad disguised as an editorial: “It Was Mr. Edison’s Mistake.” Edison, not used to being so questioned, weakly doubled-down, claiming that heavy cigarette smoking by Mexicans explained why they “as a race are not clear headed,” but he seems to have been eager to let the matter drop. By then, Edison was himself at the head of a trust that dominated an industry: the Motion Picture Patents Company, founded in 1908, included himself, Biograph, Méliès’s Star Film, and several others. The MPPC was found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act the following year.

Why you should see it:

Admiral Cigarette features a fascinating gathering of characters, all offering the same testimonial, though their significance may not be readily apparent. On the far left is “John Bull,” the national personification of England and the English people (which, incidentally, was also a market targeted aggressively by Buck Duke). Next to John Bull is a man in stereotypical Native American garb. The “Cigar Store Indian” was an association that had existed in the marketing of tobacco since the 1600s, when Native Americans were actually the source of the tobacco being sold. Next in line is a man in some sort of uniform, perhaps military. The hat may be a Glengarry bonnet, but his relevance is a mystery to me. Finally, Uncle Sam appears at the end of the row.

They are joined by the Admiral Cigarette Girl, though her legs are covered in skin-tight leggings rather than completely bare, as in some illustrated ads. The message is a simple one: Admiral Cigarettes are for everyone, and everyone loves them, and hey, look at this attractive woman! Our cultural markers and (some) products have changed significantly in 125 years, but those basic components remain some of the most commonly seen in our advertising.


~ by Jared on March 6, 2023.

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