The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 2 (May 1, 1939)
Buy … New Zealand Goods and Build New Zealand — New Zealand Industries Series — No. 3—Tobacco
Two hundred and forty years ago rare Ben Johnson said that tobacco was “the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of man.”
He knew nothing of New Zealand when he wrote; it lay under the Southern sun, a land of birds and virgin forests, of lithe and active Polynesian warriors; half a century was to pass before old Abel Tasman found a place for it on the map of the world. I would like to bring Ben Johnson back here and show him the great industrial palaces in which New Zealanders make their own smokes. He would have found in this new land Lilly's “Holy Herb, nicotian,” being transformed into the many exciting and attractive forms demanded by modern smokers. He would have found these miracles being wrought in vast temples of industry, housing populations equal to those of a substantial English village of his time.
Cigarettes and all kinds of smoking tobaccos are made in an atmosphere of smiles in New Zealand, and in the establishments I visited there seemed to be ample evidence that the happiness-giving qualities of tobacco permeate the places where it is fashioned for our use. The variety and the vagaries of taste in tobacco provide this industry with a complete set of distinctive cross-word puzzles. However, our own organisations have solved these problems; it is difficult to find the cigarette epicure who cannot have his nicety of discrimination flattered by the “little tube of mighty power” made in New Zealand by New Zealanders. This goes, too, for the pipe smoker; however hard to please or however discriminating he is, there will be something exactly to his taste in the wide range of New Zealand made tobaccos.
It is a strange fact of history that tobacco was unknown in Europe before the middle of the sixteenth century. No armoured knight ever had trouble with his vizor to get a whiff between battles; neither Henry VIII nor Cardinal Wolsey knew “the indefinable link between smoking and philosophy.”
We know that the first plant was brought to Europe in 1558 by a Spanish physician, and that the practice of smoking was quite general in England before the end of the century. It is queer, too, that such lusty strangers to rest as Raleigh, Hawkins, and Drake, should be variously credited with the merit of introducing into England “sedative, gently-soothing, gently clarifying tobacco smoke.”
Within a hundred years, the habit had spread all over the world, and there was a proverb in far-away Persia saying that “Coffee without tobacco is like meat without salt.”
It was natural when our first settlers came to this country that they brought with them the solace of tobacco.
The factory buildings stand in spacious grounds totalling five and a half acres. In the front there is an eighteen hole putting green, well manned at lunch hour. There are sweeping green lawns and many playing fields for various sports. There is even a plant nursery, necessary to maintain a set of gardens which are on the scale of those of a public park.
The first thing we noticed on breasting the main stairway was the distinctive, attractive, all-pervading fragrance. It was faint but persistent, and gave point to the early European belief in the “Holy Healing Herb,” for one felt the effect to be like that of a purifying incense.
One of the features of the whole W. D. and H. O. Wills’ factory is the extraordinary cleanliness. The floors, benches, walls and all the machinery in this temple of Three Castles and Capstan are completely immaculate.
Our starting place was where the tobacco leaf arrives from the stores where it has been maturing since it was purchased from the growers. As the great cases are opened, they show serried, closely packed masses of dried leaves. The first process is the conditioning, and we saw the leaves carried by slowly revolving drums to vanish into the chambers where the changing is to take place. The leaves in their cases, however, made an interesting study. Here I began to appreciate the vast range in types and quality of the tobacco leaf. The colour was in general a lemony gold with various tones of brown. There seemed to be remarkable consistency in the size and length of these leaves that had travelled all the way from the “Ole Plantation.” I understand that the “body” improves as the leaves grow nearer the top of the plant.
The conditioning processes are many and various, and there is no space in this article to describe them.
The whole attention of the Capstan folk, however, is focused on the leaves. The manager lifted some of them, lovingly, to show their length and shape, and the evenness of their curing.
Still, they would flake and disintegrate in their rather brittle state so they are transformed by these scientifically calculated conditioning processes. It is a magical change. It should be explained that the leaf is kept in a dry condition for the purpose of storing and maturing, but it must obviously be softened before the machines can handle it. This is known as conditioning after which the leaf becomes almost of the texture of silk, soft, pliable, and easy to handle.
The next job is to take out the stems which is accomplished by a complex machine of uncanny ingenuity. Then once more the countless rivers of sweet smelling herbs leave on their journey for more processing. I was intrigued in one room to hear a low-voiced community chorus being hummed as the girls worked happily.
The cutting comes next. This is effected by instruments of great precision, one of which, a rotary cutter, resembles an aeroplane engine. It sharpens its own blades as it spins with tremendous velocity. Under the exact shears of these razor-edged blades, the tobacco seems to foam out into the receptacles. There is an everlasting fascination in looking at these rich masses of fine cut tobacco, like soft tresses of golden hair. When held up in the hand it looked like a molten fall arrested in mid-air. The strands of the tobacco itself are surprisingly long and in spite of their fineness, have quite a noticeable strength.page 13
There is no dust whatever. Enormous dust extractors everywhere, deal effectually with this problem.
Of course, such a house as W. D. and H. O. Wills have a number of secret processes, the result of years of research and experience.
The cigarette making machine gave us a complete surprise. These mechanical marvels seem to have their own intelligence. What was entirely new to me was that Capstan cigarettes, for instance, are turned out in a long endless snake which is subsequently neatly divided into cigarette lengths. Still more perplexing was the cork tip application which is the acme of scientific mechanical wizardry. No hand touches the cigarette in the gumming, filling or cork tipping processes, and cigarettes pour out of these machines at an incredible speed. Then there is another apparatus, almost human, which tests every cigarette for size, weight, and length.
While we were watching here and waiting to take a picture of the machine, we noticed the staff sports mistress making her pleasant way round, arranging the pleasure programme for lunch hour.
The packing rooms are a study by themselves. Packing tobacco and cigarettes into the tins with which we are so familiar or into the packets which we so carelessly throw away, is a complicated combination of manual dexterity and mechanical contrivance. The packets themselves up to the large cartons, the varied shapes and sizes of tins, and all the rest of the container ranks of whatever type, are all made in New Zealand. The tobacco industry is therefore a definite “Feeder” for it indirectly keeps a host of our fellow-countrymen and women at work in industries supplying its varied requirements.
The lunch rooms are well appointed and tastefully furnished. Tea and milk are provided free and the cafeteria provides food at actual cost.
I believe it to be nothing but the sober truth that in this Capstan edifice work is a pleasure. I had in my brief visit more than a dozen proofs that the Wills’ staff is a happy fellowship. Many of the men have been with the firm since it opened, and the thinning of the feminine ranks is almost solely done by Dan Cupid.
I liked, too, the idea of the different coloured caps worn by the girls in the different departments. They are smart and gay little affairs, quite un-factory-like, and the uniforms have a trimness which is in keeping with the whole spic and span air which is observable everywhere in the well-lit halls of this fine building.
I should say that making Capstans and Three Castles is a fine way of putting in the day. I meant to tell all about Capstan Navy Cut tobacco and the savoury appearance of the great squares of pressed tobacco being assembled and then sliced. Then I watched the tins being filled, another exercise in necromancy.
We finished the day with an inspection of the enormous stores. Mountains of cases are assembled here for direct shipment to every sizeable place in New Zealand. I noticed with interest two big instalments marked Invercargill and Whangarei, respectively. Three Castles and Capstans were going North and South.
(Continued on page49.)