An Intimate history of Corporate imperialism

Too often, notions of capitalist change rely on the myth of the willful entrepreneur from the global North who transforms the economy and delivers modernity—for good or ill—to the rest of the world. In Cigarettes Inc.Nan Enstad creates an intimate cultural history that upends this story, revealing the myriad cross-cultural encounters that produced all levels of corporate life prior to World War II. 

In this startling new account of corporate innovation and expansion, Enstad uncovers a corporate network rooted in Jim Crow segregation that stretched between the United States and China. Hundreds of white southerners, bright leaf tobacco, cigarettes, and industry expertise flowed through this multinational network. Cigarettes, Inc. teems with a global cast—from Egyptian, American, and Chinese entrepreneurs to a multiracial set of farmers, merchants, factory workers, marketers, and even baseball players, jazz musicians, and sex workers. Through their stories, Cigarettes, Inc. newly accounts for the cigarette’s spectacular rise in popularity and in the process offersnothing less than a sweeping reinterpretation of corporate power itself.

table of contents

Preface: Who Counts in the Corporation?


1 The Bright Leaf Cigarette in the Age of Empire

2 Corporate Enchantment

3 The Bright Leaf Tobacco Network

4 Making a Transnational Cigarette Factory Labor Force

5 Of Camels and Ruby Queens

6 The Intimate Dance of Jazz and Cigarettes

7 Where the Races Meet

Conclusion: Called to Account

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“Fluent. Ambitious. Transformative. Cigarettes, Inc. offers a revelatory look at the modern corporation and the many worlds it made and remade. From the tobacco fields and boardrooms of the Jim Crow South to the factories, farms, and merchant shops of Shanghai, Enstad reconstructs how American big business built a vast overseas empire held in place by millions of smokers, thousands of workers, dozens of capitalists, and one, mischievous little product—the mass-produced, bright leaf tobacco cigarette. Rolling the history of consumer culture, work, innovation and bald political power into a single, powerful account, what she’s done here is almost as impressive as how she’s done it.  Brilliant.”

N.D.B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete

“With this remarkable book, Enstad redefines the cutting edge of the new history of capitalism. Transnational sweep and local texture cohabit in Cigarettes, Inc., as do searching examinations of corporate power and shrewd discussions of culture and style.”

David Roediger, author of How Race Survived US History

“Alongside the nation-state, the multinational corporation is one of the most powerful agents in modern history, yet our understanding of it is too often limited by heroic narratives of individual innovation or stunted accounts of businessmen and bureaucrats. With clarity and verve, Enstad grounds the corporate transformation of property, power, and production in the lives of the people who created, advertised, distributed, and consumed one of the twentieth century’s most destructive products. This engrossing and thickly peopled account of the cigarette’s rise in China and the United States is essential reading for all of us who live in the world remade by the corporate form—from the commanding heights of law and trade to the intimate intricacies of social relationship and human bodies.”

Bethany Moreton, Dartmouth College


S. P. Harshner, Marquette University, for CHOICE, June 2019:

“In Cigarette’s, Inc., Enstad (history, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) brings the tools of a master cultural historian to the relatively staid genre of corporate history. Her book centers on the growth of the British American Tobacco Company (BATC) in China during the first decades of the 20th century. Rejecting more traditional accounts—i.e., explanations that describe success as a result of the spread of global capitalism, or of the individual genius of swashbuckling entrepreneurs—Enstad argues that BATC’s penetration of the Chinese market emerged from the work of a great variety of people from vastly different backgrounds. Indeed, the spread of cigarette culture in China depended just as much on the marketing genius of Chinese salesmen as on the manufacturing expertise of Carolinas' tobacco moguls. Whereas those who profited received privileges in accordance with their racial background, ethnicity, and gender identity, BATC was also a forum in which groups as divergent as southern sharecroppers and Chinese sex workers contended for power and recognition. Global in scope, ambitious in conception, and meticulous in execution, Enstad’s book is a provocative must-read for historians of capitalism and imperialism alike.”

Excerpt from Anne Diebel, “Smoke-filled Rooms: How China and America Were Connected by Tobacco,Times Literary Supplement, July, 23 2019:

“Enstad emphasizes that corporations are social as well as legal and financial organizations, “formed through innumerable intimate contacts at all levels”, and it is a “peopled” history of the cigarette industry in the US and China from the 1870s to the 1930s that she wishes to tell. Tracing the development of ATC and BAT, Cigarettes, Inc. presents a wide range of figures who “made” these corporations day by day. This includes a diverse group of corporate actors, from executives to middle managers to factory workers. It also draws in Chinese servants, sex workers and cabaret girls, and black American entertainers, who were not directly involved in the corporations but participated in the domestic economies and business cultures in which the corporations flourished. Enstad takes inspiration from the idea proposed in the 1950s by the legal scholar and later Kennedy Administration official Abram Chayes that “a more spacious conception” of corporate membership would include not just directors, officers and shareholders, but “all those having a relation of sufficient intimacy with the corporation or subject to its power in a sufficiently specialized way”.