Caroline Western / Spring 2014 Glassford & Henderson E-Tern
You know those annoying little stickers you sometimes find within the seams of new clothes? Yeah, the ones that poke you in the side until you finally peel it off, read the small black number with little interest, and then throw it away? In the present day, we think very little about how our goods are made and deemed fit for consumption or use.
While transcribing and editing many of the entries from the Alexandria and Colchester stores, I came across entries concerning ‘Tobacco Warehouses’ and ‘Inspectors’. These warehouses sparked an interest because, like our fashion or technology, tobacco was an integral part of colonial, and Virginian, society. Like Nichole Zang’s interest in tobacco marks, I wanted to know what these warehouses were for and who was running them.
The 18th-century Virginia economy relied heavily on tobacco cultivation and trade. In fact, tobacco was used as currency in many instances. For example, the leaves could be used to buy the indentured servants or slaves who cultivated the crop, as well as everyday commodities from local stores. Larger planters usually sold their crop directly to England, while smaller planters built relationships with local agents who would then provide them with manufactured goods.
Even though tobacco was an incredibly important crop in Virginia’s economy, it did not come without its problems. Tobacco became over-cultivated; therefore leaving farmer’s lands overused and undernourished, resulting in inferior crops. In 1619, the first inspection law was enacted, ordering cultivators to bring their low quality tobacco to their local warehouse to be burned. By 1630, a law was passed that disallowed inferior quality tobacco to be used as payments for debts.
These laws were gradually built upon, resulting in 1730 with the permanent Tobacco Inspection Act of Virginia. It was decreed that warehouses would be set up, 12 to 14 miles from one another, and named after the bays or creeks they were situated upon. In the Glassford & Henderson ledgers, we see many of these names, including ‘Hunting Creek’ and ‘The Falls’.
Yearly, two men of good moral standing were chosen by the Virginia county court to serve as inspectors in their area’s respective warehouses. These inspectors were given the task of receiving a planter’s hogsheads of tobacco(1 hogshead = at least 950lbs), inspecting it for quality, and issuing a crop note to the planter. The crop notes were representative of the amount of tobacco now lodged at the warehouse, and could be given to a merchant in exchange for goods. Additionally, planters could bring smaller, or surplus amounts of tobacco in exchange for ‘transfer notes’, which could be used to buy goods or satisfy the demands of a creditor.
Inspection promised that the planter “…may go to any place, and sell his tobacco, without carrying a sample of it along with him; and the merchant may buy it, though lying 100 miles or at any distance from his store, and yet be morally sure both with respect to quality and quantity.”
As most laws do in one way or another, the inspection laws faced opposition. “Poor planters” were concerned that the inspectors applied different standards depending on class, and therefore that justice under the inspection laws did not exist. The argument focused around the idea that poorer planters had poorer land, which would in turn produce poorer quality crops. In addition, these poor, “honest” planters could not compete with the rich man’s “schemes” of “false packing” a hogshead or forging a Note’s quantity.
The outcomes of such opposition are not clear to me; but, it can be determined that in general the regulations were designed to fix tobacco prices at high levels while also allowing the planter more flexibility. Before the inspection laws, store owners would usually only accept whole hogsheads for goods. Now, with the existence of Notes, the planter could seek the best price for his tobacco (Crop/Transfer Note) at a variety of establishments, and most likely did exactly that just as we might look for the best bank to deposit our money for future spending.
 “Description of Virginia Commerce,” William and Mary Quarterly 14, (October 1905): 87-93. For tobacco related laws, see Henings Statutes at Large.
 Rainbolt, John C., “The Case of the Poor Planters in Virginia under the Law for Inspecting and Buring Tobacco,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 79, no. 3, (July 1971): 314-321.