During the late 1800s, North Carolina dominated the national tobacco market, and in 1913 R. J. Reynolds Company (RJR) introduced a product that revolutionized tobacco advertising and processing: Camel cigarettes.
The Tar Heel State experienced a tobacco boom in the 1870s. RJR opened a plant in Winston and Washington Duke started operations in Durham under the name of The American Tobacco Company (ATC). Other companies existed, too: Green and Blackwell produced Bull Durham. Other North Carolina companies were P. Lorillard and Liggett and Myers. These two cooperated with RJR and ATC to form an American Tobacco Trust; the company’s leaders agreed to specialize in certain products and refused to compete with each other in particular specialty cigarettes. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled in 1912 that the arrangement was illegal.
In the wake of that decision, RJR introduced, with innovative advertising, a revolutionary product: Camel cigarettes. In 1913, Camel cigarettes were announced in papers, and many initially considered “The Camels are coming!” slogan as a joke. They soon learned otherwise. Circus camels were driven into towns and company representatives distributed free cigarettes. The camel was named “Old Joe,” and he became the face of the new tobacco blend.
Advertising catapulted the cigarette to national popularity, to be sure; however, its pleasant taste ensured that it remained popular. Sometimes the best advertising is a friend’s endorsement. Many North Carolinians started recommending the cigarette and its popularity started growing almost immediately after its introduction to the market. Customers remarked about the good taste of the burley, and Camel sales soon outperformed the other three tobacco companies’ Turkish blends.
Camel cigarettes competed with other popular Turkish blends. Fatima, a popular one produced by Liggett and Myers, was the biggest competitor. But Lorillard had the Zubelda, and ATC had the Omar brand. While competitors emphasized the Turkish aspect of the tobacco blend, Camel packages stated “Turkish and Domestic Blend.”
Affordability also launched Camel cigarettes into the national market. RJR sold its product for a nickel less (10 cents) than its competitors’ counterpart products.
Necessity bred invention among RJR’s competitors. Calling on experts within Liggett and Myers, Nannie Tilley called on Charley Penn to combine his knowledge of burley and the tobacco making process to create a rival product. Penn used a method that had previously been used strictly for plug tobacco. While Penn worked on creating a flavorful cigarette, others worked on designing an appealing carton. They abandoned ornate designs and chose to keep things simple: a circle was the focal point of the cigarette package. The end product was Lucky Strike.
Camel and RJR had revolutionized the cigarette industry in taste and in advertising. According to historian Nannie Tilley in The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, “Camel became the agent for producing the modern cigarette industry.” In 1913, George Washington Hill even remarked about the brand’s revolutionary influence, and Tobacco magazine editors wrote that the brand had become “standard.” A year after Camel’s introduction, packers put in overtime to meet national demand. RJR produced so many Camel cigarettes that Winston-Salem was nicknamed by many as “Camel City.”
As its popularity soared, Camel remained at the forefront of advertising by being a sponsor in NASCAR, Formula One, and Superbike racing series. Although tobacco regulations have increased in the United States and in North Carolina, Camel is still a top-seller (top-five) and is sold in over ninety countries.
Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State (Columbia, 2006) and Jack Claiborne and William Price, eds., Discovering North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1991).