Must-See RVA! — Butler & Bosher

Must-See RVA! — Butler & Bosher

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.

July 2019 — looking towards 117-121 North Twentieth Street at the southeast intersection of Grace & Twentieth Streets
July 2019 — looking towards 117-121 North Twentieth Street at the southeast intersection of Grace & Twentieth Streets

AKA, American Tobacco Center
117-121 North Twentieth Street
Built, 1902

Don’t mess with Buck Duke.

(Duke University Libraries) — James Buchanan Duke
(Duke University Libraries) — James Buchanan Duke

James Buchanan Duke was many things. A philanthropist, an industrialist, trust builder, and creator of the modern tobacco industry, he was not the kind of person who had much patience for weak-kneed associates who sniveled about minor things like legalities, nor was he apt to let such annoyances get in the way of his ruling the market.

[RVCJ03] — Arthur St. Clair Butler, circa 1903
[RVCJ03] — Arthur St. Clair Butler, circa 1903

In January, 1903, Mr. A. St. Claire Butler, of Butler & Bosher Co., Richmond, Va., and a friend spent a day at No. 111 Fifth Avenue, New York, with Mr. Duke, Mr. Fuller, and one other trust representative. Mr. Duke wanted to buy and offered to buy 51 per centum of the capital stock of the Butler & Bosher Co., whose business for several years previously has been supplying the Navy Department with tobacco, and manufacturing and selling tobacco in the South and New England.

(Chronicling America) — Richmond Times advertisement — Tuesday, February 14, 1893
(Chronicling America) — Richmond Times advertisement — Tuesday, February 14, 1893

Mr. Duke, in offering to buy 51 per centum of the stock, told Mr. Butler that the business was to continue just as it had been managed, and their interest in it to remain a secret. Mr. Butler was to continue an independent manufacturer, continue to use the union [7564] label, and continue to associate with independent manufacturers. When Mr. Butler said that this would not be honest, Mr. Duke replied, “Plenty are doing it to-day, and if you do not do it, we will ruin you and drive you out of business.” Mr. Butler asked time to consider the proposition, and returning home consulted his lawyer, who, happily, was a lawyer of the old school, as he advised Mr. Butler he would not be able to do what was proposed and be honest. Then Mr. Butler declined to sell.

(Pinterest France) — a tin of Butler & Bosher Pipe Full Cut Plug
(Pinterest France) — a tin of Butler & Bosher Pipe Full Cut Plug

Thereupon the trust started out in its campaign against him. Mr. Butler had worked up quite a trade in New England on a smoking plug under the brand “Butler’s Light and Dark.” which was much the same as Mayo’s “Eglantine” and “Ivy,” brands owned by the trust, and which were large sellers, and on these the trust placed a deal, which so cut down Mr. Butler’s business that he was greatly demoralized. Later the Navy contract was again awarded to Mr. Butler, and then the trust began bidding up the price of sun-cured tobacco, out of which the contract had to be made, and when Mr. Butler was thoroughly frightened, again offered to buy him. This time, however, they offered to buy his business outright, and finally they did so, continuing him as manager upon a salary.

(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 41 — showing Butler & Bosher Tobacco Factory at Twentieth & Grace Streets
(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 41 — showing Butler & Bosher Tobacco Factory at Twentieth & Grace Streets

The foregoing is a copy of the statement made January 20, 1905, to the Hon. James R. Garfield, Commissioner of Corporations. Mr. Butler was continued as manager of the business of Butler & Bosher Co., owned and controlled by the American Tobacco Co., from the time of its purchase, July 1, 1903, until March, 1906. Then the factory was closed, and Mr. Butler thrown out of employment. He, like 98 per cent of the manufacturers who have sold out, being under contract not again to enter into business, is now in the prime of life unable to engage in a business in which his whole life has been spent. Thus his experience as a tobacco manufacturer is lost to the country. [BDCRT]

[RVCJ03] — Butler & Bosher factory, circa 1903
[RVCJ03] — Butler & Bosher factory, circa 1903
It’s not clear when Butler & Bosher started as a business, but the earliest advertisements appeared in the Richmond Times and Richmond Dispatch in 1892. The 1893 edition of Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James (RVCJ) identifies Robert S. Bosher as President of the T. C. Williams Company but he must have found a way to dedicate time to this other enterprise. Regardless of how they started, they were an independent tobacco firm, and not part of Duke’s voracious trust, the American Tobacco Company (ATC).

(VCU) — 1889 Baist Atlas Map of Richmond — Plate 3
(VCU) — 1889 Baist Atlas Map of Richmond — Plate 3

They started their business in a four-story brick tobacco factory on the west side of Twenty-Second Street, remarkably, a location that is also still standing. [RT19020518] The Navy tobacco deal they won in 1902 vaulted them into the big time, requiring them to produce 200,000 pounds of plug tobacco over the three-year contract [RD19020403], and it must have been with giddy anticipation that they announced the construction of a new six-story factory at Twentieth and Grace barely a month later [RD19020529].

It also effectively put themselves squarely in ATC’s crosshairs, and by September Butler & Bosher was in active denial of the inevitable [RD19020910]. However, Duke wasn’t about to let minor players gum up his grand schemes, and the darlings of the Navy capitulated in July the following year.

(Find A Grave) — Arthur St. Clair Butler in later years
(Find A Grave) — Arthur St. Clair Butler in later years

After the acquisition, ATC made good on its intention to have the “independent” Butler and Bosher continue to bid on the federal contract when it came up again for renewal in 1905. The truly independent tobacco manufacturers cried foul, but it appears to have changed no minds. ATC won and would continue to win until the 1911 smackdown by the Supreme Court forced its breakup.

By then it was too late for Arthur Butler, whose non-compete ejected him from the industry. He bought a piece of land in Mathews County called Poplar Grove and got the hell out of Richmond.

(Butler & Bosher is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Print Sources

  • [BDCRT] Bills and Debates in Congress Relating to Trusts: 1902-1913 Fifty-Seventh Congress, Second Session, To Sixty-Third Congress, First Session, Inclusive (December 1, 1902–December 1, 1913) Vol. 2 Pages 1115–2403. Office 1914.
  • [RD19020403] Richmond Dispatch. Thursday, April 3, 1902.
  • [RD19020529] Richmond Dispatch. Thursday, May 29, 1902.
  • [RD19020910] Richmond Dispatch. Wednesday, September 10, 1902.
  • [RT19020518] Richmond Times. Sunday, May 18, 1902.
  • [RVCJ03] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1903.
  • [RVCJ93] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1893.

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