Happy B’Day James Duke: The Tobacco Tycoon Known As “Father of Modern Cigarette”

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A shrewd businessman and an investor who is often referred as the ‘Father of the modern cigarette’ was born in a modest family. He lost his mother in his early childhood and tackled poverty to become one of the most influential people in USA’s history. The ‘comfort zone’ was never meant for him as he always focused on expanding his businesses in every way possible. On his 159th birth anniversary, today we remember such an extraordinary personality, James Duke.

Even being from a modest background, he was able to build a huge empire, trying his luck in every business and working from dusk till night. The tobacco Tycoon mechanised the Cigarette manufacturing process, built the largest Hydroelectric plant of the 1900’s and donated close to $1 billion through his endowment till date.

Full Name: James Buchanan Duke


Born: 23 December 1856, in Durham, North Carolina

Death: 10 October 1925, in New York City, New York

Enumerating this many-sided man in a single is an impossible task, yet this profound figure had many ideas and facts that are still unknown to many, I have striven to bring these facts to you:

  • James Duke was named after the President of United States James Buchanan and nicknamed as ‘Buck’.
  • As the Civil War was raging the USA, his father had to join the forces leaving his children in relative’s hands and their farms were destroyed but a stack of tobacco was somehow left untouched.
  • That stack of tobacco worked as the Aladdin’s lamp and Washington Duke sold that tobacco on a broken-down waggon pulled by mules.
  • As the tobacco was of finest quality the demand increased and its production and distribution began on a large-scale. By 1872, the family was selling 125,000 pounds of tobacco annually.
  • Duke Sons and Company was incorporated in 1878, started in a 2 storied building in Durham formed the basis of Duke Family Fortune.
  • Technological edge: Duke decided to mechanise cigarette manufacturing by installing 2 cigarette manufacturing machines designed by Virginia-based James Bonsack. This soon outstripped the demand for cigarettes.
  • In search of new markets, in 1884, he shifted to New York and established a small factory with only $100,000. During the day he looked after the factory while in the evening he visited the retail stores to market his product which established a connection among the customers and the retailers.
  • Pioneer advertiser: Free samples and coupons, imagery on posters and billboards, he spent around $500,000 on marketing alone. And it worked in his favour.
  • By 1889, he merged with another 4 tobacco giants to remain at the epitome of the tobacco market making the ‘American Tobacco Company’ which controlled 90% of all tobacco sales in the United States.
  • To uproot the monopoly of the Duke’s tobacco company, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of American Tobacco Company. It still had a little effect on the Duke’s company which controlled 40% of the market share even after the dissolution.
  • He focused on the global market and with some partners established the ‘British tobacco Company’. And became the largest tobacco company ever.
  • New Ventures: Invested in banking, textiles, railways and hydroelectric power. His main focus was on abundant natural resources.
  • Fascinated by the power of rushing water, installed 35 fountains at his home in New Jersey. The water rushed so high that the scene became aesthetic and people flocked to watch it.
  • James Duke was a charming man and a devoted husband and a father: A letter to his daughter reads “You certainly are the dearest little girl that any daddy ever had and your affection and devotion towards me is the brightest spot in my life”.
  • In 1905, Duke started his next venture: He acquired land and water rights along the river Cawaba for his hydroelectric power project. Within 2 decades, it supplied power to more than 300 cotton mills and boosted employment in the region.
  • Philanthropy: In 1924, Duke’s endowment was established with $40 million, 32% of the endowment’s annual income will benefit the Duke University- Then Trinity College. It’ll also support other educational institutions, orphanages, healthcare organisations, and Churches.
  • Legacy: His legacy continues even after his death in the form of his generous deeds, in every innovation and in every institutional advancement.
  • James Duke left the world 10 months after signing the endowment suffering from a blood disease that has a cure in today’s world and upon his death, he left additional $67 million for the endowment.

The post is a part of a B’day Series where we celebrate the birthday of renowned personalities from Tech Industry, very frequently. The series includes Entrepreneurs, C-level Executives, innovators or a renewed leaders who moved the industry with his exponential skill set and vision. The intent is to highlight the person’s achievements and touch base the little known, but interesting, part of his life. You can see the list of all earlier celebrated tech personalities, including Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayor, Sean Parker, Andy Rubin, Julian Assange, Sir Richard Branson, Sergey Brin by following this link or subscribe to your daily newsletter.


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