Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Playing With Matches and the Evil Weed or My Adventures with Historical Bad Habits

19th-Century Men and Their Pipes
Image Courtesy of
The Pipe Cabinet
      I must confess, at one time I had a strong affection for smoking cigs but gave up the nasty things over 30 years ago. I never really lost my attraction, I just didn't like the idea of a smoking habit that was too easy and convenient. In my early Living History days I would "occasionally" enjoy a guilt-free clay pipe but it was still rarely.  When I got to a certain age and with the support of my loving wife, I began to explore the idea of becoming a casual pipe smoker. Pipe smoking is a great hobby as it offers the curious dabbler limitless possibilities of pipe styles and tobacco blends. For me personally, the attraction of the historical varietys became the ultimate seduction and worthy of exploration. This post is about a couple of related topics that I hope the reader will find interesting.

The Remnants of My Tobacconist's Shop
Replicas of Cigar Boxes from the Steamboat Arabia
a Bottle of Snuff
and My Replica Matches
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     In 2009, for Columbia State Historic Park's annual living history event, I decided to portray a Tobacconist. In 1852 there were 3 in the original  town and up until the '09 event, no attempt had been made by the State Park or any volunteer to even suggest they existed. What a shame and what an opportunity to interpret the past ! In my little corner display ( I rented the space from the proprietors of the Coffee Saloon)  I had quite an array of offerings from snuff to cigars and from whole leaf to plugs of chew. All for interpretation mind you and not for public consumption. Along with the tobacco, a variety of clay pipes rounded out the display and I even had replica period matches, which brings me to the first project in this post.

     Many years ago I thought it would be really cool to replicate actual period matches but the more I researched the more unlikely it became. The tragic history of early matches with their white phosphorus was terrifying enough to temper my interest with caution.  With a little more research I discovered that a primitive version of the white phosphorus-free "safety" match (invented in 1844) might be a prime candidate for ressurection.

     The course was set for a successful replication when I discovered an original mid-19th century matchbox and contents,  labeled "P. Cowee's Super Chlorate Matches or Lucifers",  in the collection at Sturbridge Village. Since the label mentions using the enclosed sandpaper to ignite the match it was very likely an early safety match. The history of  the match is readily available online and Wikipedia is a good place to start. I dug around and found several original formulas for matches and finally settled on one that seemed within reach. I needed Potassium Chlorate (5 parts) as an oxidizing agent, Antimony Trisulfide (5parts) would be the ignition promoter, Gum Arabic (3 parts) would act as a binder and lastly, I would add a little lamp black (1 part)  for color. I was very lucky to have a good friend chase down the chemicals for me, which really helped. I then made up a load of proper shaped wood splints and pre-dipped their tips in melted sulphur. I roped my friend Nick Kane into helping create the matches as he had a respirator ( Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the chemicals were still quite toxic).  When the project was completed, I made up a few boxes for myself and the friends who had helped.  You are probably wondering if they actually worked and I can assure you that when drawn across the treated sandpaper (Red Phosphorus and an abrasive) they sputter and explode into flame just like those legendary originals and man do they stink !

Standing in My Tobacco Patch
About 3/4 Grown
Photo Lindy Miller 2010

A Carrot of Tobacco
Image Courtesy of
The Museum of the Fur Trade
My Restored Meerschaum,
Kid Lined Silk Tobacco Pouch and
Bone Lady-Leg Tamper
My Favorite Kit
     Now, shall we explore my adventures in growing  historic tobacco? To start off, I thought I would try some easy-to-grow variety that had a tie to history. I settled on a strain called Virginia Gold as the seeds were readily available on line and most information suggested it was a good choice for beginners. Mr. know-it-all fell on his face the first year as not a single seed germinated. Dang! Not one to give up so easily, I studied a little more and after improving my starting trays, was rewarded the next year with a million little seedlings. At this point I had to decide how many plants I could realistically grow. We have the poorest soil and too many deer waiting in the bushes for something new to munch. I built a deer-proof compound and transplanted the seedlings to pots. It takes months to grow tobacco to maturity but once it gets going it shoots up like nothing else. After the leaves began to turn yellow, I started to harvest them and bundle them in hands of two or three. Next came hanging them in my ventilated tin shed to color cure to a nice tobacco brown. When everything was right and they were in "case" (moist enough to handle without crumbling but still dry), I began to gather them to be bundled for the next step.

     On a piece of canvas, about 18" square, I laid the leaves out after stripping away the stems. Just for fun, I spritzed the leaves with brandy as they piled on. This part is a little hard to explain but you have to compress the leaves (about 50-60) into a roll and then tightly pull the canvas over that roll. The final step it to bind the roll tight with twine, until it resembles a sort of double-tapered bundle. Historically these were called carrots and apparently some sailors called them periques (there's even a Youtube, "How to make a perique" ) but I was intrigued by the notion of a slow and simple historic way to age tobacco. Most homegrowers today use kilns to speed the process. The old way I chose will take many months to age the baccy into something smokeable but at least it will be chemical free. Believe me I know it will take time as the samples so far have been just a "little" harsh. But hey, what do I know as I usually smoke a nice mild black cavendish blend ( "Yosemite" from the Briar Patch) which the pipe snobs tell me is for beginners. On that note, while I'm waiting for my homegrown to mellow, I'll go enjoy some of that wonderful "beginner's" blend right now in my favorite "historic" pipe.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your hints. A friend and I have been toying with the idea of growing our own tobacco for the past three years for use. Your hints provided me with some insight into the process and a push to hurry up and start the process.