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A Brief History of Rowe Cigarette Machines

A Brief History of Rowe Cigarette Machines

The Early Days of Commercial Cigarettes

By the turn of the 19th century, the use of tobacco had become a common, though not widespread, practice. People chewed it, filled their pipes with it, or rolled it up in cigar wraps and papers. At this time, people who did enjoy cigarettes smoked about forty cigarettes per year, which is less than two modern-day sized packs.

The first commercial cigarettes were not sold until the tail-end of the Civil War in 1865. Washington Duke, the patriarch of the iconic Duke family, sold cigarettes hand-rolled from his North Carolina crops to the soldiers.

The American Tobacco Company and other large tobacco producers began employing cigarette rollers. Chewing tobacco had quickly become the bestseller for the R.J. Reynolds company, but other companies looked to improve their profits with other products.

In the late 1800s, the average highly-skilled cigarette roller could roll about four cigarettes per minute. There was a huge opportunity for a cigarette market, but their was not a way to produce large amounts of cigarette machines without a sizable amount of workers. Yet.

In 1875, the Allen and Ginter Tobacco company of Richmond, Virginia announced a contest. The challenge: invent a machine capable of mass-producing cigarettes. The reward: $75,000 (approximately $1.6 million in 2015).

In 1880, James Albert Bonsack answered the call with his invention. He had spent the previous five years developing the design and prototype, and was issued a US patent for the first cigarette rolling machine in 1881.

Most of the tobacco firms were not sold on the reliability of the machine and passed on the purchase of it. However, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke bought the machine, and started production as quickly as he could.


The Bonsack Machine (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Bonsack machine, as it was known, could produce 200 cigarettes a minute. While that was a great number in terms of supply, the demand was no where near that high for cigarettes. Buck Duke was about to change that.

From the 1880s into the turn of the 20th century, Duke began an aggressive marketing strategy to build up the demand and allure of the cigarette. Cigarettes were marketed as more hygienic compared to hand-rolled, saliva-sealed cigars. Cigarettes were portrayed as potential aides for medical conditions such as coughing and tuberculosis. Duke’s team also created the idea that cigarettes could be allowed in areas where pipe and cigar smoking were unacceptable, such as in a restaurant or in a parlor. Beautiful graphic designs and collectible trading cards accompanied every pack.

It is estimated that Duke’s marketing efforts cost him about $800,000, which is roughly $25 million dollars in today’s money! His strategies, combined with the onset of World War I, and the transition into the hard-partying Jazz Age cemented the popularity of cigarette smoking, making it a culturally acceptable and even desirable thing to do.

William H. Rowe and the Cigarette Vending Machine

Rowe Thumbnail

While all of this was going on in the tobacco industry, another new industry had proliferated- the vending industry. The most popular vending machines during the early 1900s were the penny gum ball and candy machines.

In 1914, a thirty year old Canadian from Virgil, Ontario by the name of William H. Rowe arrived in Los Angeles. He found work as a printer on a daily paper, and later began his own printing business.

In the 1920s, Rowe worked as the clerk of the LA police court. Always the innovator, Rowe would take home odds and ends that were confiscated by the police. In 1926, Rowe invented the world’s first automatic vending machine for cigarettes using a confiscated moonshine whiskey still and a cigar box.

In 1928, with Robert Z. Greene, William H. Rowe founded the Rowe Manufacuturing Company, Inc., in Los Angeles, the first company in the US to manufacture cigarette vending machines.

The invention of the cigarette machine paved the road for the vending industry to evolve past penny vending, and into higher-priced vending items.

1940 Rowe Pinstriped Cigarette Machine

Rowe served as the president of the company for 15 years, until he retired in 1939. From 1939 until his death in 1945, Rowe spent his time on his 4,000 acre ranch in Nevada with his family. The Rowe Manufacturing Company was acquired by The Automatic Canteen Co. in the mid-1950s.