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"he had read of their release in the newspapers" [RESI]

[Editor's note: This is James O'Leary's contribution to The Newspapers: An Irregular Journal of Sherlockiana, Vol. 3. Ordering information is below; Volume 2 can be found via Google Books.]

In July 2013, the late Don Libey posed this question on an online forum: “Dr Watson uses the word ‘honeydew.’ Full particulars please; not just the Google gloss.”

I was intrigued and had some questions that I wanted to answer; how did honeydew tobacco get its name, what was it origins, what brand could the cardboard box received by Sarah Cushing have been? One does start by googling but the paucity of information does force the researcher to delve deeper.

The first thing that turns up in a Google search of “honeydew tobacco” is the sweet secretions left like drops of dew by aphids or naturally secreted by the plants themselves. In History and Status of the Green Peach Aphid as a Pest of Tobacco in the United States by Frank Shirley Chamberlin (USDA, 1958) there is this quote:
“Heavy infestations of aphids can severely stunt the growth of young tobacco plants in the field. As the initial distribution of aphids in a field is likely to be irregular, an uneven crop can result from early attacks. Stunting of older plants and withering of leaves may be caused by large populations of aphids. Their feeding on the foliage produces tobacco leaves of an inferior or worthless quality, this con­dition being accentuated in the relatively thin cigar-wrapper types. On such types of tobacco, which are harvested by cutting the whole plant, the yield and quality may be reduced by premature ripening of the lower leaves. Feinstein and Hannon have shown that aphid-damaged tobacco contains less nicotine than comparable undamaged tobacco. Injury is believed to be due mainly to the removal of plant juices, but may be caused in part by injected salivary secretions absorbed and translocated by the plant. The deposition of prevents normal curing and causes disfiguration due to the presents of adhering cast skins and sooty molds.”

Does this have anything to do with honeydew being a “kind of tobacco moistened with molasses?” There is no evidence that growers took the damaged tobacco and sweetened it to hide a substandard product. There is, in fact, evidence that growers took pride in producing a superior product. Early use of quotation marks around the term “honey-dew” would indicate it was perhaps named by analogy.


According to History of American Manufactures From 1608 To 1860, Volume 3, James Thomas, Jr., a manufacturer of plug tobacco, specialized in lighter, “bright” tobaccos that made him well-known in the US and Europe.

Plug or cut tobacco are cured leaves pressed together into a cake or “plug” and wrapped in a tobacco leaf, twisted and/or pressed, usually for chewing but can also be smoked in a pipe. It was sweetened with molasses, licorice, or rarely, honey.
“The art of sweetening tobacco with mass licorice was discovered about this time [“[s]ixty years ago”] by Mr. Jesse Hare, also of Richmond, and this discovery may be said to be the first step taken towards elevating the business to one of national importance. 'Honey Dew' tobacco, as several of the varieties containing this ingredient were afterwards called, yielded its supremacy at length to the bright-assortments subsequently introduced, and of which James Thomas, Jr., may be considered the pioneer and founder." (p. 527)

Another well-known name associated with honeydew tobacco is that of the Gravely family of Henry county, Virginia. According to Steve Rucker in “The Tobacco Industry in the City of Martinsville and Henry County,” in 1792 “B. F. Gravely and Sons built a factory in Leatherwood. Benjamin is credited with adding the essence of licorice to improve the flavor of plug tobacco. Around 1800, Gravely became world famous as a processor of plug tobacco.”

Their flue-cured bright tobacco was sold as the popular brands “Payton Gravely,” “J.G. Gravely Fine pounds,” “Honey Dew,” “Kate Gravely Fine 9 inch.” 

John Redd Smith’s article “Early Settlers of the Territory Now Occupied by Patrick and Henry Counties in Virginia” notes:
"When I (the writer) was an undergraduate medical student in New York City, something over a half century ago, I walked into a fashionable tobacco store on Broadway and requested the proprietor to show me a plug of the very finest chewing tobacco. Without the slightest hesitation he reached up to a shelf and took down a plug of B. F. Gravely’s 'Superior,' and laid it on the counter with an air of finality, as if there could be no room for discussion….Many years ago, when the great explorer, Henry M. Stanley, forced an expedition through six hundred miles of seemingly impenetrable forests to the rescue of Emin Bey [Mehmed Emin Pasha b. March 28, 1840 d. October 23, 1892], and when he and Emin met formally on the shore of the lake [Lake Albert, 1888], it seemed the proper thing for them to exchange diplomatic presents. Emil [sic] Bey’s gift to Stanley included a pound of Peyton Gravely’s 'Honey Dew' tobacco."

Honeydew was a popular chewing tobacco enjoyed as “chaw” or in a pipe by both men and women in the U.S. Chaw was also very popular with sailors, from many nations, especially because of the fire hazard of smoking on wooden ships.

Honeydew spread throughout Europe and the world. Honey-dew tobacco was advertised for sale in The New Zealander in Auckland at 4 shillings a pound in 1852 and described as "The best in town."

Tobacco in "The Cardboard Box"

How did Jim Browner use tobacco? There is actually no evidence within the story to form an opinion. No pipe or sealskin tobacco pouch in evidence; no quid in his mouth. No cigarettes or cigars. 

In fact, the cardboard box might even have been someone else’s discard picked up from the trash. While English sailors were more likely than the average Briton to chew tobacco, any conclusion one could make would be mere guesswork.

While one can find many vintage honeydew tobacco tins, especially W.D. & H.O. Wills Gold Flake Honey-Dew cigarettes, cardboard would appear far more ephemeral. A clue, though, can be gleaned from W.R. Loftus’ The Tobacconist: A Practical Guide to the Retail Tobacco Trade in all its Branches (1881).
"Cut Honeydew. --- Honeydew is a general name given at the present day to leaf-tobacco of a light colour that has been pressed after a slight damping into frames of moulds, and then sold either in a cut or an uncut state. Not having undergone fermentation to any extent like shag or birdseye, honeydew is of necessity strong-smoking. It is, in fact, cavendish without the dark colour which the great bulk of cavendish possesses, unless sold in stamped custom wrappers, without the molasses or liquorice used in the preparation of sweet cavendish. As very little water is added to the leaves employed in the making of honeydew, it is requisite to charge a higher price for it that for shag or birdseye, in order to compensate for the loss of the profit realized by selling these tobaccos in a damp condition. Hence honeydew is consumed chiefly by the well-to-do classes, and by those only amongst them who can tolerate or enjoy a strong smoke. It is rarely sold loose. The different makers send it out almost entirely done up in fancy packets of various sizes." [Emphasis added.]

Loftus expands on this in the section Packet Tobacco:
"The increasing sale of almost every kind of tobacco in packets of definite weight, ready made up and labelled, has greatly changed the character of the retail trade throughout the country. All difficulty as to loss of weight by drying up in stock is thus removed; for, apart from the cases in which the tobacco is enclosed by the manufacturer in leadfoil, which practically prevents evaporation of the moisture, each package is sold to the customer as of the weight invoiced by the manufacturer, no allowance being made or expected for any difference of weight caused by keeping, so long as the tobacco remains enclosed in the original package, and has evidently not been tampered with since it came into the hands of the retailer."

Under the subhead Cake and Roll Tobacco, Loftus says both cavendish and honeydew come in two types, sweetened and unsweetened and “sweetened tobacco must, by law, be enclosed in stamped Government wrappers before it can go into home-consumption. A heavy fine is imposed for any violation of this rule.”

Apparently, honeydew and other tobaccos were sold to local tobacconists directly imported from the tobacco manufacturers in preweighed packets, with the sweetened type of cake tobacco further enclosed in official wrappers.

"A Yellow, Half-Pound Honeydew Box"

In my online search I came across a photo of a yellow(ing) cardboard box of honeydew tobacco. In 2012, renovations of the Inverness Steeple, in Inverness, Scotland, uncovered papers wrapped in wax paper tied in sisal string. Those papers along with other modern day items, including a Nokia cell phone were placed in a time capsule that November, to be opened in 100 years’ time, in 2112. 

Then in May 2013, there was another find
“Joiners working at Inverness town steeple on the corner of Bridge Street and Church Street have uncovered another time capsule during the historic building’s renovation works. This earlier find is believed to date from 1878 and is the second discovery within the past 8 months. It predates, by 45 years, another package dating from 1923 which was discovered during October 2012 in the steeple. Tony Russell and Jordan Fraser of D.Y. Fraser Joiners, Inverness were carrying out works on the interior of the steeple building for The Highland Council when Tony revealed the find on Thursday 9 May 2013.”

In a recess that was later covered over by a staircase Russell and Fraser found a Havana cigar box which contained:
  • A booklet published by the American Sabbath Tract society itemising “The brief grounds serving to prove that the Ten Commandments are in full force and shall remain so…”
  • A Savings’ Book of Inverness Bank dated 1878;
  • A notebook with the signature of Angus McNeill;
  • A small envelope with a Penny Brown Stamp posted in Manchester on Jan 1878 and addressed to – Mr D.C.Taylor, Tobacconist, 1 Church Street, Inverness;
  • Inside the envelope were receipts dated 1877 from Sutton Company Parcel Express and their agents Robert Paton of Glasgow; and a Happy New Year message on a memo from Alexander Taylor, Pawnbroker, Manchester to Mr Taylor in Inverness.
  • Headed notepaper of the Prudential Assurance Company, 62 Ludgate Hill, London;
  • 3 Promotional cards itemising “Free Fishing Days on the River Ness” published by the Inverness Advertiser in February 1878, and
  • A small ‘Honey Dew’ tobacco box containing coins including old pennies and shillings with dates ranging between 1851 and 1877.

Based on the coins inside the box, Greg Ruby, in a private conversation, surmised the box was about three inches square (the average human ear is about 2.6 inches square). The cover has a printed red ribbon reading “Bright Flaked Honey Dew” but no other markings as to size or brand. 

Holmes says of the box sent to Miss Cushing, “The box is a yellow, half-pound honeydew box, with nothing distinctive save two thumb marks at the left bottom corner.” [CARD]

This description would fit the box shown; nothing distinctive, just the type of tobacco, not even the weight of the contents, although Holmes and most other tobacco users would probably be able to tell the amount. 

Now we have an example of a honeydew tobacco cardboard box and can see for ourselves the basis for a Sherlockian tale and a Canonical title.

The Newspapers, An Irregular Journal of Sherlockiana, No. 3, 2019 is now available to be thrown on your doorstep by those fine paperboys (and girls), The Sherlockians of Baltimore. Inside you'll fine 180 pages of Sherlockian goodness from the likes of Vincent W. Wright, Andrew L. Solberg, Monica M. Schmidt, Charles H. Prepolec, Karen Wilson, Jaime N. Mahoney, William Hyder, Ross E. Davies, Carla K. Coupe, Les Moskowitz and many more. 

Ordering information:

Price: $20, plus $3 shipping (if needed)
Payments: by Paypal’s Friends and Family option to Greg@FourthGarrideb.com
Checks (payable to Greg D. Ruby) can be mailed to:
   Sherlockians of Baltimore
   2400 Boston Street, Suite 102
   Baltimore, MD 21224