Born: July 20, 1850, in Patrick County, Virginia.
Died: July 29, 1918, at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Known for: Building one of the largest tobacco empires because of his leading innovations in the industry, ultimately putting Winston-Salem on the map.
Richard Joshua Reynolds, more commonly referred as RJR by locals, came to Winston at the young age of 24 and built a tobacco empire with a thoughtful but aggressive approach to innovation.
Though the company produced chewing tobacco — the most popular tobacco product around the turn of the 19th century — Reynolds recognized consumer trends toward smoking tobacco. He developed Prince Albert tobacco in 1907, a blend of burley and flue-cured tobacco, which was considered radical at the time. In 1913, he introduced Camel cigarettes, the first national brand. Not only was the tobacco blend unique, the company’s packaging (a 10-pack carton, each pack containing 20 cigarettes) became and remains the industry standard.
Born to the large family of Hardin and Nancy Jane (Cox) Reynolds in Patrick County, Virginia, he grew up working on the family tobacco plantation and in the tobacco factory and general store his father owned. Though he had access to quality education he always struggled with it, but he excelled at selling the family’s tobacco products across the South. RJR would eventually enter in a business partnership with his father.
His ambitions were greater than what was possible in Virginia and he came to Winston “for the benefit of the railroad facilities,” he said later in his life, “and on account of this town being located in the center of the belt in which the finest tobacco in the world is grown.”
It took one year but RJR was finally established as a business owner, although he was one of 15 total tobacco companies in town. He set himself apart through his unconventional ingredients, including early use of saccharin to flavor the chew; flue-cured tobacco instead of the standard burley. He felt so confident about his product; he built a facility way larger than what his business needed at the time. Leaving nothing to chance, he was actively involved in bringing the Roanoke & Southern Railway to Winston, which gave him access to greater and cheaper distribution lines than those controlled by J.P. Morgan.
At his death, RJR was the wealthiest man in the state and one of the largest employers, but he used his wealth to the benefit of the community. He started a savings and loan that serviced his employees, helped bring the first YMCA to the region, helped establish Slater Industrial Academy (which became Winston-Salem State University), and was the first Southern man to establish a hospital for blacks (Slater Hospital).
Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer said of him, “He was a strange man, Dick Reynolds was, a bold, daring, and audacious man.”