When Clint Eastwood, as the on-screen fictional outlaw Josey Wales, chews unsmilingly on some tobacco before coolly spitting out the juices, the moviegoer is watching one of the most iconic gestures associated with the cowboy. It is a gesture young white males in parts of the American South East still emulate.

An advert for Goodwin's Fine Cut Chewing Tobacco
An advert for Goodwin’s Fine Cut Chewing Tobacco

Called variously chewing tobacco, spit tobacco, chew, chaw dip and plug, this is an ancient practice that comfortably predates the cowboy. When Christopher Columbus met tobacco-chewing native American Indians off the coast of Venezuela in 1500, he was encountering a centuries-old practice.

The early settlers soon discovered why. Tobacco contains an oily substance, nicotine, that gives the recipient a continuous ‘high.’ It increases alertness and concentration, stimulates the brain and reduces tiredness. No wonder soldiers in the American Civil war used it to calm their nerves.

After the war, as the west opened up and the big cattle drives started, cowboys unsurprisingly used it to sustain them during long days in the saddle. They chewed on tobacco that had been mellowed by smoking and sweetened by molasses, aided by a ‘secret ingredient’ that included honey, liquorice or vanilla beans. The early settlers had taken the raw, harsh product enjoyed by the Native Indians and tamed it.

Chewing tobacco was also cheap, portable and very easy to use. All the weary cowboy had to do was to take a few leaves, insert them between cheek and gum and chew. After the initial satisfying chew the sweet taste from the molasses wore off and all that remained was a bitter taste.

All this chewing generated a lot of juice that quickly built up in the mouth. The cowboy’s response was simple – spit it out. On the open plain this was not a problem but in the saloon bar or church other users objected. Soon every public building had another icon of the old west, the spittoon.

A poster from the mid-19th century showing tobacco production
A poster from the mid-19th century showing tobacco production

By the 1840’s there was a well-established tobacco industry. Manufacturers in its southern heartland offered tobacco in three forms: as shredded leaves (invariably cigar scraps) contained in a pouch; as plugs in compressed brick form, from which pieces could be cut; or as long strips twisted together.

As the 1880’s heralded the end of the great cattle drives, chewing tobacco was at the height of its popularity. By now it was as popular with baseball players as it was with cowboys. These disparate groups identified their favourite tobacco by brand, with evocative names including Copenhagen, Red Man and Cannon Ball.

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