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Bloch Brothers' 75th Anniversary

Places of Wheeling Icon

▼ Bloch Brothers Tobacco Works History

- from "Building Blochs: the Monthly Bulletin of The Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company," Wheeling, W. Va., v.3 , no. 5, July-August, 1954.

Bloch Brothers' 75th Anniversary

It's fourteen years since the Civil War ended. Rutherford B. Hayes is President of the United States and a product is born. It's the year 1879. Two brothers — Aaron and Samuel Bloch — have entered the tobacco business as stogie manufacturers in Wheeling, West Virginia. This thriving town, located on the banks of the busy Ohio River, has many small stogie factories and the city is known as the center of stogie manufacturing in this country. One of the larger stogie plants is that of Augustus Pollack — a concern that many years later would become part of the then-tiny tobacco business known as "Bloch Brothers."

Aaron and Samuel operated this stogie venture as a small side-line to Samuel's wholesale grocery and dry goods store located on the west side of Main Street between 15th and 16th Streets.

The local practice of using the stogie wrapper clippings as a form of chewing tobacco led the brothers to conceive the idea that would revolutionize the chewing tobacco industry. Why not flavor these clippings and package them in paper bags?

Starting on a very small scale the brothers would flavor and package the new-type tobacco in paper bags that bore the names of the stores who sold direct to customers. Immediate success in this venture led Aaron and Samuel to the marketing of their own brand. Taking a mail pouch as their characteristic symbol, the made their first sale of West Virginia Mail Pouch on October 15, 1897. [this should be 1879?]

The change to this new type of chewing tobacco — "scrap"— caught on in the Wheeling area immediately. The fame of West Virginia Mail Pouch began to spread to neighboring areas and the brothers began to advertise.

As Mail Pouch grew, they discontinued the stogie business and began to buy wrapper and binder "clippings" from plants everywhere. Advertising widely for these clippings, they bought only quality tobacco — of, as their ads put it, — "only sound, clean cigar clippings accepted."

The Mail Pouch factory was in their lower Main Street building — above the dry goods shop. The fateful flood on the Ohio in 1884 ruined the dry-goods and grocery stocks but the tobacco factory remained high and dry. Soon after the waters subsided, Aaron and Samuel sold the ruined grocery and dry goods stock to a salvage company and concentrated their efforts in the tobacco business. They purchased the old "Sugar Mill" on 40th Street which is still the site of the business. This new factory location proved to be perfect, affording access to the "packet" boats that plied the Ohio and to the railroad located between the mill and the river.

The business under the two Bloch brothers prospered and in December 1890 — just six years after moving the operation to 40th Street, the business was incorporated as The Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company for $2,0000,000.00.

During these years, labor was actively engaged in organizing. The Ohio Valley had many glass, iron, and steel plants whose employees were already highly organized. Most of these local unions were affiliated with the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly and with the American Federation of Labor.

On March 6, 1890, the employees of the Bloch Brothers Company held a meeting at the South Side Turner's Hall for the purpose of organizing a Union in the American Federation of Labor. About 130 employees out of some 500 attended and elected officers. Under the name of the "Tobacco Workers' Union, No. 4087," they joined the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly. Later on in the year, Local 4087 joined the American Federation of Labor.

At a special meeting on June 25th, 1895, the Local voted to apply for a charter in the National Tobacco Workers' Union of America. With the overwhelming ballot in favor of joining this movement to unite workers in the tobacco industry, the President of the Local, a foreman at the factory, turned the gavel over to the Vice-President. The new National Union's constitution forbade membership eligibility to foremen and foreladies. Thus, did Local 4087 become Local No. 2.

In September 1899, the National became the Tobacco Workers' International Union and granted Local 2 a charter two months later. Local No. 2 is, today, the oldest active local in the Tobacco Workers' International Union.

Also holding membership in Local No. 2 were the employees of the West Virginia Tobacco Company. This company was formed early in 1889 and made Red Letter scrap chewing tobacco in competition with Mail Pouch until they went out of business in the 1890's.

During the early 90's labor troubles leading to strikes were common around the Ohio Valley. Iron, steel, glass, transportation and building workers were frequently at odds with their managements. From those early years in the Company's and Union's history up to the present, relations between the two have been held at such a high standard, that only one brief work stoppage has occurred. This employee-employer success as manifested in good relations through the years can only be the result of cooperation on both sides.

During 1890, the Bloch Brothers' business grew rapidly. Work was steady and it was frequently necessary to work until 10:30 at night to keep up with orders. That year, the traditional week off for Christmas was limited to only Christmas Day.

In 1892, the Company's private electric light power plant was installed — with a capacity of 275 lights. Additions to the buildings were made during the 1890's to meet increased demand for the product. More and more employees were hired to keep production ahead of demand.

In January 1902, Samuel Bloch was elected President of the firm. The year 1902 also saw the purchase of seven lots near the factory in South Wheeling. During the first decade of this century, the firm continued to prosper and leaf-stemming operations were set up in Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to augment the widely purchased cigar clipping for use in Mail Pouch. As time went by, the supply of these clippings became scarce and their quality dropped. More and more whole leaf went into Mail Pouch until, in 1932, the purchase of clippings was discontinued. Since that time, Mail Pouch has been made from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, and Wisconsin leaf.

The stemming operations which were located in the tobacco growing states were centralized in Wheeling in 1935. On July 15th, these operations got underway at the "Stemmery" and a New Local was born — Local No. 198, Tobacco Workers' International Union.

Season after season, year after year, Mail Pouch continued to satisfy thousands of old and new customers across our nation — this in the face of an industry that showed signs of decline that came about with the change from a rugged outdoor life to a highly urban existence. With this in mind, the officials of the Company sought new products to diversify the business.

The first "outside" expansion in the Company happened in June 1939, when the historic Augustus Pollack, incorporated was purchased. By this purchase, the famous Pollack stogies were added to a line of products consisting them of a very few chewing and smoking brands. After almost 60 years, Bloch Brothers was back in the Stogie business.

The Pollack stogie concern was founded by Augustus Pollack, in 1871 — just six years after the Civil War. Like the Bloch brothers, he had been in the dry-goods business before becoming engaged in the manufacture of stogies.

The business grew from a small factory which employed about 12 workmen in 1883 to two large factories which, in the year 1909 employed 140 in the Water Street plant and 572 on 18th Street.

Augustus Pollack directed the business until his death in 1906 when an administrator for the heirs took over the reins. The administrator and Mr. Pollack's daughter, "Miss Gussie," managed the business from the Water Street office until her death a few years before the sale to Bloch Brothers. Between that time and 1939, the concern was administered by a local doctor.

The present "Pollack Plant" at 18th Street was formerly the Red Letter Tobacco Factory. This concern, officially known as the West Virginia Tobacco Company, had been a chewing Tobacco manufacturer whose Red Letter Tobacco competed with Mail Pouch during the 1890's. Augustus Pollack had owned considerable stock in the Red Letter concern and had rented space in its building. When it went out of business, Mr. Pollack paid the other stockholders for their holdings and, thereby, obtained the building for his stogie business.

When the Beautiful Ohio went over its banks again in 1938, it ruined the Pollack Water Street factory, and it was idle until sold by Bloch Brothers after the 1939 purchase.

Pollack stogies were all hand-rolled until 1942 when, because of economic conditions, rolling machines were introduced and the art of hand-rolling, which had begun in Wheeling around 1840, stepped aside for the march of progress.

The famous Kentucky Club and Willoughby Taylor smoking tobaccos and many long-cut smoking and chewing brands were added to the growing list of products, when, in 1943, Bloch Brothers purchased the Penn Tobacco Company of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Production was carried on in the Wilkes-Barre factory over a period of almost five years before the machinery was shipped to Wheeling.

The Penn Tobacco Company had been formed just after the turn of the Century. On January 1, 1901, the Penn factory consisted of Henry Weigand, as Superintendent, another man, six girls and one cutting machine valued at $750.00. The two men prepared the tobacco for the girls to hand-pack. Then, Weigand, who later became president of the Penn Company, would harness their horse, "Flute," to the buggy and peddle the tobacco from store to store. To introduce the tobacco, he and a few girls would visit the local unions at night and pass out samples. This first tobacco product of the Penn Company, Penn's Stripped, is still a popular long-cut chewing tobacco in and about Wilkes-Barre.

Kentucky Club first appeared in the depression year of 1934, as a rough-cut smoking mixture in a pocket-size paper package. About one year later it was marketed in a pocket tin in its present form -- fine-cut. Kentucky Club changed its "dress" in March of this year, when the revolutionary Kenseal pouch was introduced in place of the bulky tin.

This new-type smoking tobacco package is made up of three materials that are laminated together -- glassine paper, aluminum foil and polyethylene film. This pouch, which has vastly prolonged the "shelf-life" of smoking tobaccos, has proved to be the greatest advance in tobacco packaging made in recent years.

By 1948, the Bloch Brother Company was actively engaged in the manufacture of several tobacco products -- chewing tobaccos, smoking tobaccos and stogies. With a sales force spread over most of the country, it was a logical step to add pipes to the salesman's line. This was done in 1948 and Bloch Brothers was expanding again.

In 1952, another tobacco business that had developed from a wholesale grocery business was acquired -- Christian Peper Tobacco Company. This St. Louis tobacco manufacturing concern had been founded in 1852 and originally produced plug chewing tobacco and twist. In the 1860's, the Peper Company made its original smoking tobacco. The high-grade smoking tobacco business was entered into during the late 1920's with the development of Wellington and Crosby Square.

From this purchase in 1952, Bloch Brothers added to the salesman's portfolio, many high-grade pipe mixtures now being made in Wheeling — London Dock, Crosby Square, Donniford, Whitehall, Peper's Pouch, Brush Creek, and others.

With the transfer of machinery, leaf inventories and finished goods to Wheeling, also came the Peper cigarette department. These cigarettes under various brand names had been manufactured for export throughout the world by the Peper Company since about 1932 and were continued after the 1952 acquisition.

Key personnel from both the Penn Tobacco Company and the Christian Peper Tobacco Company were transferred to Wheeling where they are now active in the manufacture and sale of their former company's products.

In the last few years, greater diversification of products has been achieved by adding other sundry items to the well-rounded line of tobacco products merchandised by the Company's sales subsidiary, the Mail Pouch Tobacco Company. Where the early salesmen traveled from town to town by train and peddled one product — West Virginia Mail Pouch now, he rides in a comfortable automobile and represents many products.

With the completion of the 75th year of the Company's business, we pause only briefly to reflect upon the past. The true direction of our thoughts and hopes must be toward the future! For it is in our dreams and in the dreams of those who have gone before that we must do out best make the future even better.

(A photocopy of this article can be accessed in the Ohio County Public Library vertical file.)

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