The origin of the phrase Duke’s Mixture

Posted by | August 2, 2012

Ever heard or used the expression duke’s mixture? It has nothing to do with royalty, unless you consider the tobacco titans of the nineteenth century to be such.

Washington Duke of North Carolina was a serious and thrifty man. By the start of the Civil War he’d attained a 300-acre farm four miles north of Durham, NC, and four children: Brodie by his first wife; Benjamin, Mary and James by a second.

A widower, Duke did not enter the Confederate army until 1863; he was captured in the retreat from Richmond before Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. In 1865 the forty-five-year-old veteran was released from Libby Prison and sent to New Bern, North Carolina, 137 miles from home.

He walked the 137 miles, having only 50 cents in hard cash, obtained from a Federal soldier in exchange for a five-dollar Confederate bill. The farm had been ransacked by Federal troops, except for a little Bright tobacco leaf and some flour. To raise working capital Duke sold his land and rented back a few acres of it. After sending for his children, whom their grandparents had kept, he pulverized and cleaned the tobacco in a small log barn. Packed in muslin bags labeled Pro Bono Publico, it was loaded onto a wagon drawn by two blind mules.

duke's mixture tobaccoReins in hand, Duke rattled east toward Raleigh, sleeping by the roadside at night and cooking his own food in a frying pan-bacon, corn meal, sweet potatoes. The expedition was a success. Duke exchanged his flour for cotton, which he sold in Raleigh; part of the proceeds went into a present for his children—a bag of brown sugar. (Buck, the youngest, ate so much of it that he lost his “sweet tooth” for the rest of his life.) More important, the tobacco found a ready cash market, and yielded enough money to buy a supply of bacon.

By 1889 the loose, or ‘granulated’ roll-your-own tobacco, Pro Bono Publico, now renamed Duke’s Mixture as a challenge to Blackwell’s Bull Durham, had become the Duke Tobacco Company’s top brand. Production jumped from 3,600,000 to 5,500,000 pounds between 1896 and 1897, and even after ‘the Bull’ was brought into American’s brand stable, Duke’s Mixture continued to grow, topping the 11,000,000 pound mark by 1900.

‘The granulated business of the American Tobacco Co. between 1896-1910 was almost entirely made up of medium and low price brands, of which Duke’s Mixture was by far the most important,” states the Report of the Commissioner of Corporations on the Tobacco Industry, published in 1915 by the Department of Commerce. “The granulated business of Blackwell’s Durham Tobacco Co, a subsidiary of the American, averaged much higher in price than that of the granulated business of the American Tobacco Co proper and was also made up very largely of a single brand, namely, Bull Durham.”

The public snickered that Duke’s Mixture brand, because it was low end, was a thrown together stew of tobacco odds and ends, and this led early on to the phrase duke’s mixture we sometimes still hear used today, to mean a hodge-podge of something. Here’s a September 5, 1917 diary entry from North Carolina doughboy William Bradley Umstead:

“Sept. 5, 1917.

Came out to camp to stay on Monday Sept 3.

First drafted men came in today. Regular Duke’s mixture as I expected. Men from all social castes, professions, and walks of life, brought together for a common purpose which many of them do not understand.”

Sources: Report of the Commissioner of Corporations on the Tobacco Industry, 1915, Department of Commerce
Diary of William Bradley Umstead, 1895-1954, Academic Affairs Library, Call number SHC #4529, Manuscripts Dept., Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cigarette Pack Art, Dr. Chris Mullen, 1979, Galley Press

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