“I’ m glad that I will have the pleasure of casting my vote…”Senator Jesse A. Bloch, 1920
Senator Jesse Bloch thought hard about what he should do. What was he thinking coming this far from home when he was needed most? Serving for years in the House of Delegates, Jesse had worked hard for a position in the West Virginia Senate so that he could make a bigger impact, and this was his chance. Only he was over 1,600 miles away. He was on the wrong coast, and he needed to get from California to Charleston, West Virginia as quickly as possible. As he traveled cross country, he crossed mountains, and he crossed farmlands riddled with barns that sparked an idea in him. But, that would have to wait for another day when he had more time to think on it. For today, he needed to get home. His wife was counting on him, his daughters, and every other woman in West Virginia.
This is the story of two brothers and their family business, a marketing campaign that has lasted for almost 100 years, and an essential vote that empowered West Virginia women.
Born in Germany, Solomon Bloch came to present day West Virginia in 1840, settled, and started his family. Two of his sons, Samuel and Aaron had a small dry goods and grocery store in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. Branching out, they started a small cigar factory where they rolled stogies on the second floor above their grocery.
In 1879, they founded the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company, at the ages of 29 and 21. The cigars started as a side business, but that changed after the events of 1884. That year Wheeling was hit hard by a flood which hurt many businesses and destroyed the Bloch brother’s dry goods store. Instead of rebuilding, the brothers decided to focus on the tobacco industry.
The stogies at Bloch Brothers Tobacco were rolled by hand and clipped. The cuttings were left after the product was finished, and the workers loved to chew the leftover pieces. The brothers soon caught on to the trend, and started flavoring and packaging these cuttings and pieces selling them as loose chewing tobacco. Thinking of how exciting it was when mail arrived in Wheeling, they called their new product West Virginia Mail Pouch Tobacco. Word spread and the company grew with their soon to be famous new product. Chewing tobacco became a staple for working men employed in occupations to which smoking was hazardous – coal mines, steel mills, oil fields, and even farming. The demand for Mail Pouch Tobacco grew.
The Bloch brothers expanded their business buying more buildings and an old sugar mill, which remained in use for over 100 years. They also increased their workforce to include not only plant laborers but also salesmen. In fact, at one point there were over 1,000 women working for Bloch Brothers to de-stem tobacco leaves, all before modern machinery took their place.
In 1890, the workers began to unionize, and they soon joined the Tobacco Workers Union. The brothers were progressive employers. They provided their workers with a health plan, an 8-hour day, and a 5-day week all before these conditions became generally adopted as a standard nationwide.
The brothers employed a large sales force that traveled the country on the railroad distributing samples and putting up advertising. At one point, there were over 75 salesman around the country selling Bloch Brothers chewing tobacco. Workers of the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company spread nationwide from Wheeling to Pennsylvania, Texas, and California.
But the most famous advertising the brothers engaged in was barn painting. It all began in 1925. The brothers would pay farmers by giving them subscriptions to magazines for a year, and then painting crews would come and paint the entire barn side. When their work was done, it would read “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco: Treat Yourself To The Best.” There were barns painted in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, California, and of course West Virginia. The company’s most prolific painter was Harley Warrick who spent 25 years carrying on the barn painting tradition by himself. The tradition died with Harley, but the legacy lived on. In the 1960s, there were 2,000 barns promoting Mail Pouch Tobacco nationwide. Many still stand today.
Aaron and Samuel both served time as president of the company, until 1937 when that role was passed on to Samuel’s son Jesse.
Jesse A. Bloch was born in 1879, the same year that this father and uncle founded Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company on the second floor of their dry goods store. Jesse first entered the family business in 1900, but also simultaneously followed his own path. He was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in the 1910s and served for many years. In 1918, he was elected to the state Senate, and it was there that he served a crucial role in March of 1920.
That role was connected to a fairly controversial issue, women’s suffrage. It was a topic that had been fought over for decades in the United States. The idea of an amendment to the Constitution to grant women’s suffrage arose in 1878. It was not until 1920 that the United States sought to ratify it as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Thirty-six states needed to ratify the new amendment, and it soon came to West Virginia to make a decision on the topic.
It passed the House of Delegates and went to the Senate in March of 1920. Jesse Bloch had always been a supporter of women’s suffrage, but there was one problem standing in the way of his vote – he was in California. As the West Virginia Senate stood in a deadlock, 14-14 votes, for the 19th Amendment, Senator Jesse Bloch was on vacation in the west.
Now, he was in a race to get back to the state capitol before the session ended. He raced back as quickly as he could to try and break the deadlock. His friends and fellow suffrage-supporting Senators tried to hold the session together until Jesse could make it to the capital to cast his vote. From New Mexico, to Chicago and Cincinnati, he finally entered the state at 2 o’clock in the morning. A few hours later, he cast his vote in favor of the 19th Amendment breaking the deadlock. Senator Bloch soon after stated:
“I am glad that I will have the pleasure of casting my vote for the suffrage amendment and also to praise the fourteen fellow members of the Senate who have stood together boldly to hold the special session together until my arrival. It is they that deserve the credit for any good that may come to my vote, because it was only the courageous stand taken by them that made it possible for my ballot to be counted.”
With Jesse’s vote, West Virginia became the 34th state to ratify the 19th Amendment with Washington and Tennessee soon following to make 36 standing in favor of women’s suffrage.
The Bloch Brothers Tobacco company was sold in 1969 to the General Cigar and Tobacco Company, but the legacy of the two brothers who introduced Mail Pouch Tobacco remains. Hundreds of barns painted with a century-old marketing campaign stand in testament to the company. May they remind you of the brothers who produced West Virginia’s most famous consumer product, and the man who cast the final vote in favor of women’s suffrage in West Virginia.
Thank you for reading! Please let me know what you think and if you have any wild, wonderful, weird, or forgotten stories from West Virginia’s Past.
With special thanks to the efforts of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History, West Virginia Archives and History, the West Virginia Encyclopedia, the Raleigh County Public Library, and the Mail Pouch Barnstormers.
- Library of Congress Online Archives
- Jourdan, Katherine. “Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company.” West Virginia Encyclopedia, 27 Dec. 2010, https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/549.
- Charleston Daily Mail, March 8, 10, and 11, 1920.
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