Figures 4, 5, 6. Three of the four 1868 Continental Bank Note Company Tobacco Stamps featuring black imagery.
Origins and Use
Inspectors Stamps were the original “cigar strip” tax stamps, the first in a long line of subsequent issues that would become inseparably associated with cigar boxes well into the 1950s. They were created in response to 1864 Civil War-era tax legislation, requiring packaged cigars to be individually assessed for taxation by a cigar inspector and then sealed with a tax stamp (Figure 7).
Figure 7. An extremely rare surviving example of the $15/thousand denomination on-piece. Photo courtesy of cigar historian Tony Hyman, from his private collection. www.cigarhistory.info
Collectors of U.S. revenue stamps are likely to be familiar with the Act of 1862, the broad body of Civil War tax legislation enacted to raise funds for the Union army’s war chest. The act imposed stamp duties, a method of collecting taxes through the purchase of a revenue stamp relevant to the item being taxed. This method was confined to “documentary” items (legal and financial instruments) and “proprietary” items (patent medicines, cosmetics, perfumes, and playing cards). The law required these stamps to be affixed directly to the object of taxation as evidence that the tax was paid.
The 1862 Act also imposed excise taxes on distilled spirits and tobacco products (often called “sin taxes”) but these taxes weren’t collected using the stamp duty method. Philately enters the picture regarding excise taxes on cigars, specifically, with the Act of 1864. It mandated that cigars were to be packaged in “bundles, packages, or boxes open to inspection” by officially appointed cigar inspectors in tax districts previously established in the northern and border states, Washington, D.C., and the western territories. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue was charged with having these stamps made, and the law stipulated how they were to be applied to cigar packaging. It can be said that the cigar stamp was born on June 30, 1864, the date when the Act of 1864 was signed into law.
The Two Inspectors Stamps of 1864
The year 1864* saw two issues of Inspectors Stamps. The first series was issued on July 14, 1864 (Figure 8). They are of a rather “plain Jane” design and were printed for only about two months.
The second issue stamps as shown above in Figures 1 and 2 were first printed in late September of 1864 and saw use through 1865. It is not known why an entirely new design of stamp was required. A thorough search of informational circulars issued by the Commissioner to tax assessors and inspectors as well as tobacco and revenue agent trade papers has turned up no communication whatsoever about the change.
*The first series of Inspectors Stamps are attributed to the year 1863 in the standard philatelic literature. However, this attribution is incorrect. The story of these stamps is currently the subject of a significant research study by Peter Schwartz.
Figure 8. A representative example of the first issue Inspectors Stamps.
The Inspectors and Their Stamps
The second issue Inspectors Stamps were produced by the American Phototype Company of New York, the same firm that produced many of the revenue-stamped paper imprints well-known to revenue collectors. The company first entered into contract with the Treasury Department around August 10, 1864, and again on October 20, 1864. Specific details of the first contract are not known, but the October contract guaranteed them a print run of two million stamps at a price of $1.30 per thousand.
Exclusive of margins, the stamps measure 15¼” x 1”. They were printed in sheets of 20 subjects on very thin paper, measuring 25¾” x 16 ½” (Figure 9). The stamps are surface printed, not engraved.
A cigar inspector’s chores included separating each stamp from these ungummed, imperforate sheets. Inspectors were left to their own devices to concoct a recipe for adhesive. Considering the fragility of the paper, it must have taken great care to separate the individual stamps without tearing the sheet itself. Privately rouletted examples of these stamps are known, but they are exceedingly rare.
The denominations of these stamps are peculiar in that they reflect the tax “class” of the cigars (as determined by the inspector) rather than a specific amount of actual tax due. The five denominations are $3, $8, $15, $25, and $40 per thousand cigars (Figure 10).
Figure 10: Detail of the denomination panel of the $3/thousand value
The Historical Perspective of the Vignettes
Though produced by the American Phototype Company, a contract printer, these stamps were, in essence, the product of the federal government. When we consider that black labor predominated on tobacco plantations at the time of the Civil War, the use of this imagery is strikingly paradoxical. Considering that American Phototype was contracted to produce these stamps in August, 1864, the vignettes can be nothing other than a depiction of black slave labor.
The strongest indication that the workers are black is in the depiction of six women, five of whom are clearly wearing the types of dresses and headscarves typically worn by enslaved women of the period (Figure 11). Right here we must also pause to note the first philatelic portrayal of women on any U.S. stamp, irrespective of race.
Figure 11. The six women depicted in the second issue Inspectors Stamps. A child can be seen to the right of woman #4.
Prior to the mass importation of African slaves to the Americas, early Europeans attempted to enslave Indians for agricultural and mining work. But due to decimation through disease, and the brutal warfare of their irrepressible resistance, Indians did not succumb to involuntary servitude.
The colonists, particularly the British, used indentured servants from the lower social classes to work the tobacco fields. Servants were a diverse crew of political prisoners, convicts, the impoverished, and individuals who simply wanted to start a new life in the Americas. As with the African slaves who would eventually supplant them, indentured servants were exploited and abused. But unlike the enslaved Africans, they did not become property for life to those who purchased their servitude.
The indentured servitude model was quite lucrative for tobacco planters who made huge profits from the sale of tobacco used to make cigars, snuff, chewing and pipe tobacco, and later cigarettes and even medicinals. Those profits were subsequently used to increase the purchase of enslaved Africans. Thus, the wretched transatlantic slave trade was fueled by Europe’s strong demand for tobacco, which was indigenous to the Americas. It was introduced to Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, and naval commanders Admiral John Hawkins and his cousin Sir Francis Drake, both of whom were heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade.
From 1690 to 1770, there was a huge demand for labor by planters in the Chesapeake colonies, which led to 100,000 black people who were brought from Africa. From 1675 to 1750, the demand for African slaves in the Western Hemisphere, especially the Caribbean, resulted in 600,000 people being taken from Africa.
The African slave trade to America continued from 1700 to 1740. Sixteen percent of the population in the Chesapeake colonies were black in 1690, but that number increased to 25 percent in 1710 and 28 percent in 1740.
Slavery ended in Cuba in 1886 and in Brazil in 1888, the latter country being the largest recipient of the Atlantic slave trade. By the time the slave trade ended in the Americas, more than 13 million people were taken from Africa. Of those, 11.3 million people survived the horrible middle passage from West Africa to the Americas over of a period of three centuries, with tobacco production playing a significant role in the existence of the Atlantic slave trade.
Omens of Slavery Ahead
Framing the vignette of the 1907 Tercentennial Founding of Jamestown commemorative are two seemingly incongruous plants. But the flowering tobacco plant and the stalk of Indian corn are highly symbolic — presaging the arrival of African slaves in the summer of
1619 to address the critical labor shortage in the tobacco fields. The vignette itself is based on a drawing furnished by the Jamestown Expedition Company. The artist is unknown (the stamp was designed by Clair Aubrey Houston). While the presence of the tobacco plant on this stamp symbolizes the economic importance of tobacco to Jamestown, the 1864 Inspectors Stamp acknowledges the use of black slavery in tobacco production.
On one hand, without an awareness of the subtext of slavery in the Inspectors Stamps vignettes, the choice to illustrate a cigar tax stamp with a tobacco farming scene might seem unremarkable, even obvious. On the other hand, some might make an assumption that this imagery was chosen by an abolitionist-minded stamp designer to reflect the evils of slavery. But at the time these stamps were issued, black people had already endured 245 years of slavery in the U.S. and were indelibly associated with tobacco production. Thus, the choice to use this imagery may have been naïve, depicting the unfortunate status quo. It’s also possible that these particularly long, narrow tobacco-oriented scenes were chosen because they suited the long, narrow medium of the stamps.
Decoding the Plantation Scene
Tobacco farming from the 1600s through the end of the 19th century was very labor intensive. Slave labor involved black men, women and children, and the Inspectors Stamp imagery (Figure 12) includes as many as 24 working men, women, and children.
Figure 12. The left and right panels of the 1864 issue. Notations above correspond to the descriptions in the text.
The scenes depicted in the Inspectors Stamp vignettes provide a generalized version of tobacco farming that strongly suggests a location in the U.S. The very fact that this imagery appears on a U.S. stamp suggests that it was intended to reflect a U.S. locale. However, some of the features depicted were common to late 18th- to 19th-century tobacco plantations throughout the Americas.
The left panel shows rows of emerging tobacco plants being cultivated (J). During this phase of growth, weekly cultivation was necessary to deter weeds and insects, such as hornworms and cutworms. These tasks were performed using a hoe and by hand. There were also the jobs of suckering and topping — removal of smaller leaves and tobacco flowers that sapped energy from the larger, prized leaves.
The flowering, full-grown broadleaf plants (D) suggest either bright-leaf or burley tobacco, which emerged during the mid-19th century in the Piedmont regions of Virginia and North Carolina.
Both panels depict what appear to be pine and deciduous trees (A and B), though there are no palm trees indicative of a location in Cuba or the Caribbean. The mountainous terrain (C) reflects a combination of soft, low and sharp, high peaks. This makes it difficult to use them as a landmark to pinpoint a specific geographic location, and suggests some degree of artistic license on the part of the artist.
The split-rail fence (E2) seems innately American, especially due to its association with Lincoln. But picket fencing (E1) as well as the rectangular, thatched-roof house (F1) are features known to have been found in the Piedmont region of Virginia and in North Carolina, but also possibly in the Caribbean.
The right panel depicts the curing, drying and packing of dried tobacco into hogsheads (large barrels) and sending them off to market. The small wood-framed house (F2) could pass for a 19th-century Piedmont-area house, but is also indicative of homes in the Pinar del Rio Province of Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
A woman (4) appears to be taking tobacco leaves brought from the field in a wagon to the people in the curing barn (K). The man (G) standing by the mules suggests the presence of a white overseer. We arrive at this suggestion by comparison with other period artwork of plantation scenes in which the overseer is typically depicted wearing a wide-brimmed hat. However, he could also be a driver of unidentifiable race waiting for his cart to be unloaded.
The workers at the barn appear to be stringing the tobacco onto sticks to hang in the rafters. This open-sided, thatched-roof structure is similar to drying barns found in 17th- and 18th-century tidewater Virginia. However, similar structures appeared on tobacco plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil.
Mule-driven wagons (H) were used throughout the Americas, especially in North America and the Caribbean, to haul tobacco-filled hogsheads (I). Their size as depicted in the scene may be somewhat exaggerated, but never theless they could weigh 1,000 pounds or more when filled with tobacco.
Clearly distinguishable in the vignettes are the head wraps worn by slave women, a custom that originated from West Africa. The slaves are mostly depicted wearing light-colored clothing. With the increase in cotton production in the lower South during the 19th century, un-dyed jean cloth became more common and enabled slave owners to provide slaves with untailored, loose-fitting and ready-made clothing.
Design Features & Printing Quality
It must have been the limitations of surface printing that essentially rendered moot a potentially effective anti-counterfeiting measure incorporated into the design, what today we might call microprinting. Appearing repeatedly within the design’s solid black outer border is this inscription:
🞳 U.S. INTERNAL REVENUE 🞳 INSPECTORS STAMP 🞳
The lettering is so murky, however, that even under high magnification the clearest examples are barely legible.
Stamp imagery serves as a reflection of our cultural perceptions and values that evolve over time. Consequently, the evolution of black imagery from 1864 to contemporary times has progressed into a more equitable and realistic portrayal of African Americans on U.S. stamps, and will continue to exemplify the nation’s commitment to commemorating the contributions of African Americans in our society.
Readers of the AP can look forward to Peter Schwartz and Calvin Mitchell’s upcoming article on the 1868 Continental Bank Note Company tobacco stamp, to be published in 2020.
References and Further Reading
Act of the 38th Congress, Statues at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, of the United States of America from December 1863–December 1865: Chapter 173, Sections 90 & 94.
Beckles, Hilary McD. Britain’s Black Debt. (University of the West Indies Press; 2013): 58.
Gately, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. (Grove Press; 2001): 43–45.
Hatcher, Robert S. “How Our Early Revenue Stamps Were Contracted For.” American Journal of Philately (August 31, 1893): 427–431.
Horn, James. 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy. (Basic Books; 2018).
Kulikoff, Alan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800. (University of North Carolina Press; 1986): 65.
Springer, Sherwood. Springer’s Handbook of North American Cinderella Stamps Including Taxpaid Revenues, 10th Edition (Hawthorne, California: Sherwood Springer; 1985).
Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. (Simon and Schuster; 1997): 226, 804–805.
The Essay Proof Journal, 8, no. 1 (January 1951): 3–9.
The American Revenuer, 30, no. 5 (April 1976): 125.
The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial (August 11, 1864): 1.
The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance and expertise of the following tobacco experts and historians: Tony Hyman; Asimina Mila; Sonja Ingram; William A. Morgan; Katie Vanhoy; Charlotte Kosner-Blaser.
Stamp images from the collection of Peter Schwartz except for Figures 3, 4, 5, and the Jamestown Tercentennial, courtesy National Postal Museum Collections Department, Manda Kowalcyzk, photographer.
The Story Behind the Story
In 2016, the authors were introduced to each other by revenue dealer Eric Jackson who thought they would share a common interest in Mr. Schwartz’s initial hunch about the depiction of black labor in the stamps’ vignettes. Mr. Mitchell concurred, leading to what was to become a three-year long research effort conducted entirely by email, text, and phone. With Mr. Mitchell living on the east coast and Mr. Schwartz on the west coast, they never met in person!