A Brief History of Imperial Tobacco

We have some big news for you today really big news. News that will knock your socks off. But first, I would like to fill you in on a little related history. The relationships between producer, retailer, and consumer changed dramatically during the latter half of the 19th century. It was during these years that we saw the birth of most of our modern perceptions of a brand standardized product, centrally produced, distributed in distinctive packaging, and marketed on a national, even international level directly to the common man (or woman) on the street. This revolution was particularly drastic when it came to daily consumables -- tobacciana included.

Previous to the 1800s, advances in and applications of new, colorful mass printing and packaging processes, and the concept of a standardized product marketed using these advances, walking into an unfamiliar general store in order to acquire your favorite tobacco blend would have involved, first of all, knowing its recipe; the proprietor would be carrying staple components, perhaps a few prepared blends he put together for local demand, and all in nondescript bundles or jars. If you did manage to get what you were after, it would be handed over to you wrapped in, as likely as not, last-month's newspaper. There was no asking for a tin of Capstan, because the idea of "a tin of" anything guaranteed the same in London as it was in New York hadn't really arrived yet -- nor, for that matter, the idea of a name-brand, iconic consumable like Capstan. The arrival of distinctive, yet affordable packaging and advertising materials, as well as inventions such as efficient cigarette rolling machines (which transformed cigarettes from luxury items of the well-heeled, to something soldiers, sailors, and day-laborers could afford) changed all this, allowing tobacco producers and importers to broaden their markets, engage in far-flung competition with each other, and grow products into household names.

Of course, all this hullabaloo of "brands" and "advertising" was met by Victorian sensibilities with more than a little scoffing at first -- it all seemed a bit improper. Trade should be seen, not heard, or more accurately, it should exist, but not insist on making itself seen in such a bold manner. Nonetheless, there was no putting that genie back in its bottle, and in Britain this new entrepreneurism saw the establishment of such popular names as Ogden's, Wills, and Player's, brands that succeeded in gaining the loyal custom of British subjects high and low alike, all of whom now in turn could walk into any general goods store worth its salt, request their favorite blend by name, and receive a recognizable, branded package which assured the consumer that it was, indeed, just what they wanted. Measuring, weighing, the precise recipe of a particular smoking mixture; all were handled by a combination experts, specialized labor, and automation -- and all by the producer whose name marked the product. Colorful, stylized packaging kept life difficult for any prospective counterfeiters.

Along with all these boons to producers and consumer alike, however, there did come also the inevitability of a new and daunting challenge to those who'd made their mark: challengers from abroad, a prospect made possible by the very same technological and marketing advances. The prospect of shared competition with outside parties has a way of breeding cooperation, however; it's the mechanism of mutual benefit through which concepts such as "team sports", "family", and "civilization" are created. That same prospect, and mechanism, would lead to the creation of Imperial Tobacco in 1901.

For years the heads of several British blenders had been making grumblings regarding the possibility of the large and highly modernized American Tobacco Company setting foot upon their shores, but it wasn't until A.T.C.'s purchase of Ogden as a foothold into the native market that they snapped to attention. Once the news spread, however, they didn't dally. John Player & Sons, W.D. & H.O. Wills, J. & F. Bell, and nearly a dozen other British family-owned blenders promptly joined together as Imperial, sharing resources to form their own juggernaut of commerce. Soon to follow was an intense nine-month long clash of marketing and maneuvering by both American and British parties, until Imperial finally positioned themselves to begin invading the American market. At that, the dust settled. A.T.C. called "good game", and, surprisingly enough, both came to an agreement to work together: A.T.C. would market Imperial's blends in the US, and Imperial would do the same for A.T.C. in Britain. The Ogden "foothold" would rejoin their fellow Brits as part of Imperial. This cooperative venture, the British-American Tobacco Company, would last until 1911, when the Americans once more decided to go their own way. Imperial, however hastily-formed as it may have been, would go on to become the defining shaper of the British tobacco culture.

Wills' Capstan blends and Bell's Three Nuns, in particular, were blends that would take on iconic status, boosted in no small part by their being favorites of J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend and fellow writer C.S. Lewis, respectively. In more recent decades there has however been one rather glaring difficulty for many of those who may fondly recall these old favorites, or who have simply wished to try them: they haven't been available in the US. These legendary blends may have survived intact for generations, pipe-men and pipe-women this side of the Atlantic have known they were still out there, but they were just that: out there. Far, far away, and generally equal parts costly and difficult to bring here, where we could actually smoke them.

Well, no more. That's all changed -- as many of you already know, Imperial, who still retains the rights to these smoking mixtures harkening back to the very birth of name-brand blends as we now know them, has now entrusted their formulas to Mac Baren. And Mac Baren has entrusted us, in turn for the time being, to reintroducing them to you. Very soon five new tins -- Capstan Original (Blue) Flake and Ready Rubbed, Capstan Gold Flake and Ready Rubbed, and Bell's Three Nuns-- will arrive at Smokingpipes.com's doorstep. They'll have traveled a long road to get here, again, but we expect it will only make that first bowl all the sweeter.


    • Byron Kimball on July 4, 2015
    • While getting ready to order more Capstan/s, I noticed the price just increased by a goodly sum plus the quantity discounts disappeared. Something going on in the background with These and Three Nuns, or just a business adjustment, or...?

      Thank you in advance for your reply!!! Hope you are having a great 4th of July at "The Beach!!"

      Byron Kimball/Long time and satisfied customer!!!!

    • Sykes Wilford on July 5, 2015
    • Byron:

      There was a price increase and pricing policy change on the part of the US distributor. It was a pretty significant change. There's no indication that there will be future supply problems.


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