RVA Legends — Imperial Tobacco Company

RVA Legends — Imperial Tobacco Company

A look into the history of Richmond places and people that have disappeared from our landscape.

[RVCJ03] — showing Stemmery & Warehouse at Sixth & Main SW
[RVCJ03] — showing Stemmery & Warehouse at Sixth & Main SW

102-116 South Sixth Streets (Warehouse & Stemmery)

  • Built, between 1877 – 1896
  • Demolished, unknown

118-120 South Sixth Street (Office)

  • Built, 1904
  • Demolished, after 1977

The British tobacco bully-boys. What’s wrong with a little friendly competition?

(Duke University Libraries) — James Buchanan Duke

This is one of the quaint stories of the Gilded Age, those good old days when men were men and trusts were normal.

The American Tobacco Company (ATC) set aside a massive 30 million dollars to buy up British tobacco companies one by one at the start of the 20th century. The key figure was James Buchanan Duke, head of ATC, whose aggressive methods had created a virtual monopoly for the company in the US. Individually, British companies, even those of the size of WD & HO Wills and John Player & Sons, could not survive.

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

When Duke arrived in Liverpool in 1901, he walked into Ogden’s factory and bought on the spot. Duke then approached other British companies and is reported to have burst in on the Player brothers, saying: “Hello, boys. I’m Duke from New York, come to take over your business.” He was politely shown the door, an experience repeated at other companies. Facing such resistance, he paused for reflection.

This pause gave 13 family-run businesses, led by Wills, Players and Lambert & Butler, time to meet and, in December 1901, The Imperial Tobacco Company (Great Britain and Ireland) Limited was formed. (Imperial Tobacco)

[RVCH03] — Wellford C. Reed
[RVCH03] — Wellford C. Reed
Duke’s bluster would come back to haunt him, and it wasn’t long until the fight was brought directly to American Tobacco’s doorstep.

According to information received in the city, Mr. A. F. Thomas of Lynchburg, who, along with Mr. Wellford C. Reed, of this city, was appointed to represent the Imperial Tobacco Company in this country, will remove to this city and will establish himself here. He as sold out his place in Lynchburg and is preparing to make a change in his residence. It is understood that he will come here tomorrow, though hardly to settle here so soon. This will probably be a preliminary visit, with a view to securing residence, office, &c.

(Pinterest) — tin of Repeater, fine cut mild smoking tobacco, product of Imperial Tobacco Company of Montreal, Canada
(Pinterest) — tin of Repeater, fine cut mild smoking tobacco, product of Imperial Tobacco Company of Montreal, Canada

The determination of Mr. Thomas to locate here casts more mystery than ever over the plans of the Imperial Company with reference to this country. When he and Mr. Reed were appointed it was thought that the two would divide the territory between them, Mr. Reed looking after Virginia and the Carolinas and Mr. Thomas the West, or vice versa. This arrangement seems to be knocked in the head by Mr. Thomas’ action in locating here. It may be, however, that he will undertake to conduct the Western business from this point. One thing seems to be signified by the coming of Mr. Thomas to this city, namely: that Richmond will in reality be the American headquarters of the Imperial. [RT19020315]

[RVCJ03] — James N. Boyd
[RVCJ03] — James N. Boyd
They started by taking over the buildings of James N. Boyd, a former leaf tobacco broker who’d found a new occupation as President of the Planters Bank and Virginia Trust Company. His warehouse and stemmery commanded most of the western block of Sixth Street between Cary and Canal Streets, a clear finger in the face to Duke, whose American Tobacco buildings stood right across the street.

(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 11 — showing 102-116 South Sixth Street locations
(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 11 — showing 102-116 South Sixth Street locations

Nor did it take long for Imperial to make its presence known, leaning hard on its British brethren to not do business with American Tobacco.

London, March 21 — At a meeting of the Edinburg Association of Retail Tobacconists, to-day, a resolution was adopted unanimously declining to sign the Imperial Tobacco Company’s agreement not to sell American goods for a term of years, but expressing a willingness, if the minimum price is raised so as to allow a fair profit to the dealers, to do what is possible, bonus or no bonus, for the sake of British goods. The chairman declared that no one outside a lunatic asylum would sign such an agreement, which would make them the servants of the Imperial Tobacco Company. While the Americans offered a large bonus, no restrictions were placed upon the dealers. [RD19020322]

Indeed, the London tobacconists felt that Imperial Tobacco Company offer “out-Americanized the Americans” and was “unjust and unfair to the dealers, and un-English.”

May 2019 — looking towards 102-116 South Sixth Street today
May 2019 — looking towards 102-116 South Sixth Street today

Such resistance had limits, as Imperial continued to come out swinging, with two announcements in May alone.

The Universal Tobacco Company of this country, it is learned, will work with the Imperial Tobacco Company, of Great Britain, against their common foe, the American Tobacco Company, through a co-operative alliance altogether different from what has bee supposed.

The scheme of co-operation, according to the information received, is to have the Universal Tobacco Company become the selling agents for the Imperial in the country and the Imperial for the Universal in England and Europe.

Such an alliance would be an exceedingly strong one and would be hard to beat. [RT19020511]

[RTD19040177] — Plans for Imperial Tobacco Company’s Splendid Office Building, Sixth and Cary — Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, January 17, 1904
[RTD19040177] — Plans for Imperial Tobacco Company’s Splendid Office Building, Sixth and Cary — Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, January 17, 1904
This was followed just three days later with the announcement of the acquisition of the Well-Whitehead Tobacco Company of Wilson, North Carolina.

In July, the Richmond Dispatch announced that British tobacco dealers had been notified that the Imperial was arranging for direct imports of Virginia and Carolina leaf, effectively freezing out American firms from selling to British manufacturers. Later the same month, the Dispatch ran another story that described Imperial’s intention to compete aggressively in the Farmville market during the next tobacco-buying season.

While the general public know nothing of the merits of the alleged controversy between the Imperial and American “giants,” every farmer is in high hopes of larger profits from his labors by reason of the anticipated struggle between these companies. [RD19020713]

(Vintage Richmond) — Imperial Tobacco Company building — March 1977
(Vintage Richmond) — Imperial Tobacco Company building — March 1977

Duke tried fighting back.

Through Ogden’s, American Tobacco Company began cutting prices and offering free gifts in the UK – tactics that had served it well in the US. But Imperial frustrated ATC at every turn. It acquired the retail business of Salmon & Gluckstein and also set up a customer bonus scheme, whereby a proportion of Imperial profits was distributed among wholesale and retail customers.

After suffering heavy losses in the UK, and faced with a trade war at home, ATC was ready to talk. In September 1902 an agreement was reached – ATC surrendered Ogden’s to Imperial while Imperial abandoned plans to enter the American market, except for leaf buying. The result was the formation of the British American Tobacco Company Limited. (Imperial Tobacco)

(Vintage Richmond) — Imperial Tobacco Company doorway — March 1977
(Vintage Richmond) — Imperial Tobacco Company doorway — March 1977

The cessation of hostilities allowed Imperial the luxury of planning a brand new office building, which was constructed in 1904, right across the street from the warehouse and stemmery. Sadly, the giddy good times did not last.

In 1907, American Tobacco Company was indicted in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. They fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1911, the justices issued their decision in United States v. American Tobacco Company, holding that American was indeed guilty of attempting to monopolize the business of tobacco in interstate commerce.

The tobacco giant was split into four smaller companies: American Tobacco Company, R. J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers, and Lorillard. American Tobacco continued to hold the rights to sell a number of Imperial brands in the US, leaving Imperial free to export any of its other brands to the American market. (Imperial Tobacco)

May 2019 — looking toward 118-120 South Sixth Street today
May 2019 — looking toward 118-120 South Sixth Street today

Imperial may have seen the writing on the wall and elected to bail for greener pastures. A 1908 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch discusses the company’s contemplated move to Henderson, Kentucky, and their transformation into Imperial of Kentucky. Great things were anticipated from the exploitation of the great Western tobacco belt, and they expected to construct a new rehandling plant in Henderson. [RTD19080305]

The warehouse and stemmery buildings continued to be used by Imperial as late as 1924, but the office building became a warehouse for the Western Electric Company, and then Graybar Electric by 1950.

(Imperial Tobacco Company is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Note

The always readable Shockoe Examiner has plowed this same topic in a post from 2018. There are additional pictures and details about the office building that are worth checking out.


Print Sources

Newspapers provided by Chronicling America.

  • [RT19020315] Richmond Times. Saturday, March 15, 1902.
  • [RD19020322] Richmond Dispatch. Saturday, March 22, 1902.
  • [RT19020511] Richmond Times. Sunday, May 11, 1902.
  • [RD19020713] Richmond Times. Sunday, July 13, 1902.
  • [RTD19040177] Richmond Times-Dispatch. Sunday, January 17, 1904.
  • [RTD19080305] Richmond Times-Dispatch. Thursday, March 5, 1908.
  • [RVCJ03] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1903.

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