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Duke and Nuke

Hi, Everyone. As you know, we’re heading off to New England for a bit. I thought I’d try to get in one more post about Durham before we leave. I’ll also try...that’s *try*... to post a few times while we’re on the road, but I simply may not be able to. So, keep Carolina in mind for when I get back.

In the meanwhile, here’s a bit ‘bout Durham and Dukes.

Absolutely nothing to do with the story, but I like the photo anyway. This is Martha and her friend-qua-adoptive sister Judy at Old Town in New Mexico. I think it dates from around 2015 or 2016. In any case, it was a pleasant time for all.

Okay, last time, I was talking about our trip to Durham, and about the great tobacco fortunes that were founded there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I mentioned, in particular, the Bull Durham Tobacco Company.

But there is another name you already know from Durham. It is, in the end, a more important name. Specifically...



Washington Duke (1820-1905) got his start as a subsistence farmer. I will spare you his biography (it is here if you want to see it: Suffice to say that he spent most of the first half of his existence in not terribly pleasant circumstances. There was a lot of backbreaking labor and personal tragedy involved.

Everything changed in 1865. He abandoned farming and turned to making tobacco products--initially, pipe tobacco, then cigars and cigarettes. By 1880, he was able to retire as a wealthy man.

But the really interesting story involved his sons, James Buchanan Duke ( ) and Benjamin Newton Duke ( They took up where their father left off and soon created a tobacco-based empire that spanned the world. Their particular insight was that cigarettes, not cigars and pipes, were the coming thing. They specialized in the smaller smoke and won over market after market.

More important, and for this James (“Buck”) Duke is particularly credited, they realized that automation was the way to go. They invested in a cigarette-manufacturing machine invented by James Albert Bonsack ( With Bonsack’s machine, the Dukes’ company could produce hundreds or even thousands of cigarettes at a time when even the most skilled hand roller could turn out only a few per minute. According to Wikipedia, by 1890 the Dukes’ company, American Tobacco Co., had something like 40% of the total cigarette market.

The next part of the story gets even more complicated. You’ll recall that this is all happening in the 1890s, which is the Gilded Age, a time of trusts and monopolies. So, the Dukes...and particularly James...used their profits to construct a tobacco monopoly. They bought or otherwise gained control of most of their competitors and were soon able to dominate their industry.

And, in the process, they, and particularly James, used some pretty heavy-handed means to do it. In fact, come right down to it, by modern standards, you might say the American Tobacco Co. operated like a white collar crime syndicate. Or, sometimes, not so white collar. Let’s just say that if there wasn’t a Don Corleone involved, and nobody found any horse’s heads in their beds, still...kinda had the same feeling.

But, then, everybody else was doing exactly the same thing, so maybe we shouldn’t do too much judging, at least not by our own, modern, moral standards...of which the Dukes had never heard.

Anyway, the Duke family got fabulously rich. And, of course, James Duke became a philanthropist and supported all sorts of goodly ventures. In fact, he donated so much money to a local University that the grateful trustees and faculty renamed it “Duke University.”

And that’s the story up to the turn of the century.

But, believe it or not, very shortly, someone you know very well gets a bit part in the tale.

More to come.


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I provide these blog postings for free. That’s fine and I’m happy to do so. But, long ago and far away, I was told that if you give away your material, that means you don’t really think it has any value.

So, to get beyond that, I’ve decided to make it possible for you to leave me a “tip” for my posts.

If you like what I write or the videos I produce, and feel you could make a small contribution to support my efforts, please go here:

That will take you to a Gumroad page where you’ll have the option of leaving me a few pence by way of encouragement.

Again, I don’t mind if you don’t. I just want to provide you with the option so that I won’t feel quite so much like I’m just tossing my works into the wind.

Either way, thanks hugely for dropping by the blog :-)



Copyright©2022 Michael Jay Tucker

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