A Long Overlooked Part of Farming Lore

Remembering the days when Bull Durham and Prince Albert tobacco were farm staples.

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by Clell G. Ballard
The famous Prince Albert tobacco can (with tight-fitting lid) is recognized by most older people from farming areas. The paper stuck to either side of the top is the remains of a state tax document that once covered the lid.

Some incidental objects – like the stethoscope, for instance – are understood by all to be related to a specific occupation. Other items can be identified with multiple occupations. In most cases, they played a part for a period of time and were later forgotten.

Then there were those items that came to be associated with a particular way of life that was far from the original reason they existed. The focus of this article is Prince Albert pipe and cigarette tobacco. Since a good share of men who farmed or worked on farms in the early days used tobacco, Prince Albert tobacco was a staple.

a faded prince albert tobacco can with rust around the edges

As a 13-year-old being introduced to farm work for the first time, much of what I experienced has stuck with me for a lifetime. For example, on the first day I was taken out to the field to drive a huge 1953 John Deere Model R diesel tractor pulling a double disc on a dryland grain farm, I was told, in a matter-of-fact voice, that no farmer should hire a farmhand who had one of three negatives.

First, no man who wore a straw hat should be hired. As no tractors of that era had cabs, it was explained that he would always be chasing it after the wind blew it off. Second, no one who rolled his own cigarettes should be hired. He would constantly be taking his mind off his work as he took time to roll a cigarette. Third, a man who chewed tobacco had a habit that would result in the farmer’s equipment being messed up as the wind blew his regular spitting around. I was wide-eyed about everything new I was expected to do and was confused as to why I was being told all that.

the back of a prince albert tobacco can with a large spot of rust on…

Cigarette roller in high demand

Note that two of the three caveats pertained to tobacco. As I got older, I learned that tobacco and farming sort of went together. In fact, I worked for many farmers and I can’t remember one who didn’t use it. Most adults at that time had been in the military during World War II. As hard as it is to believe today, back then cigarettes were considered almost as essential as food. The young man who didn’t smoke when he went to war quickly picked up the habit. Every soldier got a cigarette allotment. When those were gone, loose tobacco and cigarette papers were available for purchase.

Born in 1906, my father started smoking early in life, before commercially produced cigarettes were commonly available. All cigarettes then were “roll your own.” By the time World War II came around, he rolled cigarettes (at 3 cents each) for fellow soldiers. Since soldiers got only so many “tailor mades” (as my dad always referred to commercially produced cigarettes), those with a strong habit sought him out. Rolling a cigarette was a skill that few men had. My dad, on the other hand, could roll a cigarette in a wind storm.

Fortunately, I never had experience with tobacco chewers. In the post-war years, smokers on the farm bought Bull Durham tobacco, which was sold in a small cloth pouch with a drawstring closure. The tag always hung outside the shirt pocket. The other choice was Prince Albert tobacco, sold in a small, flat tin can. For decades, pranksters would call someone on the phone, asking “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” When the answer was in the affirmative, the reply was, “You better let him out! Ha, ha, ha!”

bottom of a prince albert tobacco can with the words

Capitalizing on a royal name

Smokers of that era preferred Prince Albert because it was “crimp cut,” meaning it burned slowly and cool, and the can it came in had a tight lid that kept the tobacco moist. Prince Albert cans were found almost everywhere in farming areas. In fact, it may be that those tobacco cans were the most common item found on farms of America, no matter what type of agricultural products were being grown.

Research suggests that R.J. Reynolds, head of the American company that bears his name, personally chose “Prince Albert” as the brand name for pipe and cigarette tobacco in 1907. By 1930, it provided one-half of the company’s profit. The first real Prince Albert was the husband of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Their son – pictured on the can – also held the title of Prince Albert. He ascended to the British throne in 1901, serving as King Edward VII until 1910.

There doesn’t seem to be any direct connection between any member of the royal family and tobacco. If they had any say about it, one can be assured that the royal family would not approve of a picture of the young man (even before he became king) being prominently displayed on a tobacco can. But it is a sure thing that many more Americans know of Prince Albert than ever heard of King Edward VII.

yellow advertisement for bull durham tobacco with a brown bull and an image of a…

Empty cans repurposed on the farm

Since the cans were so common in farming areas, an amazing variety of “stuff” was stored in them. Because of their small size and the fact that they were basically flat, the tins didn’t hold much. As soon as the tobacco was gone, they were shiny clean inside, so after a quick rinse, anything edible or drinkable could be stored there. The tight-fitting cap that stayed put until pushed open was a plus.

Liquids that needed to be poured into small openings, like the heavy gear oil used on machine differentials, were often put in the cans. The tins were also commonly used to store nails. Depending on what was being built, a surprising number of nails could be stuffed in the can, making them easy to carry, even when working on the roof. They were especially handy for the man who’d load a tin with a little dirt and some angleworms before going fishing.

Although not a smoker, this author – who’s spent a good share of his life working on a farm – has owned, been around, seen stored and even tripped over Prince Albert tobacco cans for what seems like forever. While writing this article, I discovered that as time went by, about the only market for Prince Albert tobacco was pipe smokers. Nobody “rolls a (tobacco) cigarette” today. Marijuana enthusiasts practice the art, but a different product is rolled up in their smokes.

A recent visit to a smoke shop proved very interesting. Prince Albert is considered premium tobacco but almost no one buys it anymore. The orange cans are long gone and it is sold in air-tight pouches that aren’t even orange. The day I was there, the young women running the place were quick to explain their lack of knowledge about the product but indicated that they had been informed that the warehouse was discontinuing it. The once ubiquitous orange cans have pretty much vanished from farm country and apparently the tobacco they once held will soon follow suit.

A hard shot to make

My two brothers and I often reminisce about our last use of a Prince Albert can. My oldest brother has a long-barrel .44-caliber revolver. One afternoon, he asked my other brother and me if we would like to shoot it. Of course, we gladly said “yes,” so we went outside his cabin where there was a mountain for a backstop. We didn’t have a target, so finally a Prince Albert can was found and set on a stump about 40 feet away.

The gun owner took his shots first. Six loud explosions, and the can never moved. We joked that the size of the slug we were shooting was so large that the air pressure should have knocked the can over as it went by. After reloading, my next brother took his turn. Surely the can shouldn’t be too hard to hit. Another six rounds fired off and Prince Albert still stood proudly facing us. As the youngest brother, it would be nice if I could hit the target the others missed. After reloading, I didn’t have any better luck. My six shots missed like all the others. Since we knew the pistol shot straight, the problem was with those doing the shooting.

Pretty embarrassing! The owner took a second try and, after a couple of shots, the can flew off on the ground. Finally! When we picked it up, we discovered the one shot that finally knocked it off the stump hit poor Prince Albert right in the crotch. We got a good laugh out of that. Since we had wasted so much ammunition, we called it a day. We had hopes we would have better luck another day but we never had an opportunity to shoot at a Prince Albert can again. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

Memento of the past no easy find

a black and white portrait of Prince Albert after he had become king of Great…

Although pipe smoking was a common habit of many men in the mid-20th century, today it is almost a thing of the past. The “roll your own” cigarette culture died out quickly with easy access to commercially produced cigarettes. Pipe smoking lingered longer, partially because certain segments considered a pipe smoker to be somewhat sophisticated. The amount of tobacco consumed in those two habits has declined so dramatically that it appears the R.J. Reynolds company may be seriously considering ending the supply of the Prince Albert product.

Prince Albert tobacco cans were found in many, if not most, small farm shops for decades, but the number of existing small farms is lower than ever before. When writing this article, I asked several individuals if they could supply me with an old can to photograph but did not find anything useful. Yes, those older farmers and their wives knew what I was looking for, but few had the time or motivation to go out and look for one.

After several months went by with no luck, an old can showed up and is pictured on the next page. Somewhat strangely, the can came from a southeastern Colorado farm. That very fact supports the premise that Prince Albert cans were once common throughout this land of ours.

What did the can hold? Why was it kept for decades? As it turned out, the former owner had horses. Flexible leather strips were kept in the tobacco can in anticipation of the need for for saddle or harness repairs, even though the owner passed away years ago.

Do insignificant cultural items merit saving​? Probably not, but as far as farming is concerned, the ubiquitous orange Prince Albert tobacco cans bring back memories of how things were done in the past. In addition, they are pretty neat looking. The product they held didn’t impact farmers as much as something like a tractor did, but for many, it was part of their lives, day in and day out.

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