Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 76-89
[Access article in PDF]
The Grand Ole Opry and Big Tobacco
Radio Scripts from the Files of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1948 to 1959
Louis M. Kyriakoudes
Click for larger view
| Figure 1 |
R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. began sponsoring a thirty minute national broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1938, using the program as a vehicle to promote Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco, and its Cavalier and Camel cigarette brands. Using country music to sell something wasn't new; it reached back to the use of string bands in nineteenth-century patent medicine shows and continued with the advent of radio. Ryman Auditorium, "Grand Ole Opry House," courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
Historians rely on documents from the past that have been preserved in archives, museums, libraries, sometimes basements and attics. What gets saved and what gets tossed out is often a matter of luck or circumstance. One of the more interesting cases is the fate of the tobacco industry's internal documents. Long considered the most secretive of American industries, cigarette manufacturers zealously guarded access to their company files. Cigarette manufacturers would go so far as to ship overseas the results of their own internal research linking cigarettes with disease or transfer material to their legal counsel so that incriminating documents could be shielded from the prying eyes of government investigators and plaintiff's attorneys by attorney-client privilege. That has all changed. Millions of pages of industry documents are but a few clicks of a computer mouse away. Contained within the 1998 Tobacco Industry Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between the major cigarette manufacturers and forty-six states, five territories, and the District of Columbia is a provision requiring each company to maintain an online archive of the documents released during litigation. Available through the web (see the gateway sites http://www.tobaccoarchives.com/, http://www.tobaccodocuments.org/, and http://galen.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/) and containing millions of pages, these archives have been a rich source for scholars studying the cigarette industry's internal research, marketing practices, and massive public relations and lobbying efforts over the years. Public health scholars have made the most use of the industry archives, digging deep into the records to uncover the industry's scientific research on smoking and health, cigarette design, and extensive youth marketing activities.1
Historians, however, have been slow to take advantage of these records, overlooking this important new source for the study of modern American popular culture and business history. Big tobacco embraced advertising like no other industry in American life, incorporating every new innovation in marketing, advertising, and hucksterism to persuade the nation that smoking was fun, relaxing, pleasurable, and, of course, harmless. While we tend to associate the American public's initial infatuation with the cigarette with Buck Duke and the development of the Bonsack cigarette rolling machine in the 1880s and 1890s, cigarettes actually occupied a distinctly minor and disreputable segment of the tobacco market until World War I. It wasn't until the 1920s that cigarettes emerged as the predominant form of tobacco use, surpassing chewing tobacco, pipes, and cigars. The jazz decade, with its patina of prosperity, saw Americans take to the cigarette in ever increasing numbers as tobacco manufacturers blanketed the nation with slogans such as "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" and "Old Gold, Not a cough in a carload." Emily Post told women that to be up-to-date they had to [End Page 77] have cigarettes handy in the home: "There is not a modern New York hostess, scarcely even an old-fashioned one, who does not have cigarettes passed after dinner," she explained to her readers, even as she appeared in advertisements for Old Gold cigarettes. Cigarette sales rose astronomically, pausing only briefly in the early years of the Depression...