Tobacco bags were used to hold loose tobacco, which smokers used in pipes or to roll their own cigarettes. The bags were usually made of cotton or muslin cloth and measured about four by three inches. They were sewn down the length of two sides, with an opening left at the top. Tobacco bag stringers would thread the string into both sides, enabling the smoker to pull on the ends to close the bags. Experienced stringers were remarkably efficient. One woman from West Durham, N.C. remembered working only in her spare time and still stringing as many as a thousand bags a day, for which she earned about fifty cents.
In 1939, three companies produced the bulk of the tobacco bags used in the United States. Of these, only one - the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of American Tobacco in Durham, N.C. - had come up with a way to insert drawstrings mechanically. The other two companies - the Millhiser Bag Company in Richmond, Va. and the Chase Bag Company in Reidsville, N.C. - had to rely on human labor to string the bags. This was not a small business: the three companies combined to produce a billion tobacco bags a year.
Although many Americans showed a clear preference for the more convenient machine-rolled cigarettes, loose tobacco was still much cheaper and saw its sales jump in times of economic hardship. During the Great Depression, a bag of loose tobacco, from which about thirty cigarettes could be rolled, sold for ten cents, while packs of twenty machine-rolled cigarettes cost fifteen cents.
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"Tobacco Bags." Tobacco Bag Stringing. 2006. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. date accessed <http://www.lib.unc.edu/instruct/tobacco/story/tobacco.html>.