The Initial Research Process

Officially speaking, my prompt was to create an exhibit detailing the importance of the Reynolds family, their history, and advertise the Reynolds Homestead, the associated historic site owned by Virginia Tech. The Reynolds Homestead sent the University Library various physical photos, documents, and other items, which were scanned into images by Tech’s digital imaging department. I was given access to all of those images to determine which ones should go into the exhibit.

That said, I wasn’t given much initial direction on what specific information was supposed to be in the exhibit; Which family members I should mention, which parts of their history to bring up, and how much detail I should go into for what I add was entirely up to me. With that in mind, I decided to do some general research on the Reynolds family to see what I could find, and pick some specific points to expand upon later.

Photo of Nannie M. Tilley's book
Nannie M. Tilley’s book

My best friends throughout all of this were the Internet and Reynolds Homestead 1814-1970, a book written specifically for the donation of Reynolds Homestead to Virginia Tech, written by Nannie M. Tilley. This book was part of the scanned items I had access to, and provided a detailed family tree, a history of the family’s works and philanthropy, and various anecdotes collected through three generations of family members. It was a great starting place to gather up names of people and relevant companies, so that book became invaluable to the creation of the exhibit.

Tobacco, Tobacco, and More Tobacco

I already knew that I needed to discuss R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which is easily the most well-known company the family ever ran. In fact, I was already quite familiar with the company, and not just because I once lived near where their first factory was built. One of my jobs prior to employment at Virginia Tech was working at a tobacco museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Duke family. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should – they have a university named after them. Yes, that one. One of the things I learned as a tour guide at this museum is that J.B. Duke made much of his fortune through a “tobacco trust,” a conglomeration of tobacco manufacturers the company purchased to create a monopoly on the tobacco industry. Among the laundry list of names the American Tobacco Company acquired, one of them just so happened to be R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Serendipity, thy name is nicotine.

Anyway, since R.J.’s tobacco company is the reason the family grew to such prominence in Virginia and North Carolina, I started learning as much as I could about it. According to Tilley, R.J. Reynolds worked at Rock Spring Plantation (modern-day Reynolds Homestead) until 1874, when at the age of 24 he bought the lot where his first tobacco manufacturing factory would be built in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In its first year, the factory produced 150,000 lbs of chewing tobacco, and from that point expanded rapidly until it was producing a quarter of the United States’ flat-plug chewing tobacco by 1900. Reynolds used various tactics to defeat his competition, including adding saccharin, a zero-calorie sweetener, in the chewing tobacco. But chewing tobacco was not the only part of the market Reynolds had a hold on; in fact, they were the original producers of Camel cigarettes, a brand that was once the most popular cigarette in the US and still exists today. How popular was it, you ask? By 1925, over half of the cigarettes smoked in the US were Camels.

Throughout my research, I learned this and much, much more about R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. However, if I made the entire exhibit on the tobacco company, I would be failing to discuss many other aspects of the family that had varying impacts on the United States. But, as usual, I was unsure of where to start. Therefore, it was time for me to start looking through the Reynolds Homestead digital images and determining what material I had to work with.