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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Jane Squires, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0192. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The tobacco auction process

Squires describes her selling routine. She looks over the product and, prompted by "the warehouse man," begins her auctioneer's chant. Once the auction begins, Squires reads bidders' hand movement to register their bids, interpreting a complex sign language. Bidders who have "impeccable mechanics," a deep understanding of the process, are rare, Squires says.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Jane Squires, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0192. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
For folks who don't understand tobacco auctioneering, if you could explain what you do when you walk on to the sales floor. As if I don't know anything at all about selling tobacco, could you explain that?
JANE SQUIRES:
I made it a habit, early on, to look at the tobacco when I first get to work, so there won't be any surprises for me. That comes from years of selling tobacco when it was allocated. You wanted to get the sale a little bit straight in your head as to that you're up against that day. I did. I still do that. I still walk the floor, most of it, before I sell it. You line up, the buyers on one side, of course. The auctioneer is behind the warehouse man. Behind me would be some one who hands tickets, which is some one who works for the warehouse, as well, and then the ticket marker. The warehouse man, the person in front of me (I've had women warhouse men too) the person in front of me, starts the tobacco at a price and the sale begins. Hopefully, you're always anticipating the first crop. Everyday that I sell I always hope that that day is better than the one before. And you just try to talk them into it, now.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
But they set a price, say this pile of tobacco is going for $1.75 a pound. The warehouse man starts the . . . . . .
JANE SQUIRES:
The warehouse man will say, "75." And then you start your chant at 75. And work with your numbers until somebody gives you a starting price. He may start you on 75 and the buyer may want to pay 75 for it. If you have a real good warehouse man that's what he'll do. He'll know exactly with in a few cents. But I've had warehouse men, before, that started every pile at top money. And that's a work out. But I liked it. It never bothered me.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
So the warehouseman puts a price out. Let's say this [chooses an object on the desk] is our pile of tobacco. And I say, "$1.75" and you would?
JANE SQUIRES:
[Auctions] Just [auction] until somebody bids.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
OK, but what about catching the bids from the buyers, how does that work?
JANE SQUIRES:
You know, it's all hand motion, usually. Some bid other ways but mostly its very simple ot figure out that. It's never a problem, once you get the hang of that.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Ok, so they've started the pile of tobacco for 75 and you cry 75 and somebody throws out their hand, then?
JANE SQUIRES:
He does that and he's on 75. That would be 65.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
If he holds his hand down that would be . . . . . .
JANE SQUIRES:
65.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
What if he . . . . . .
JANE SQUIRES:
Way up would be 85.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
OK, so how they move their hands [signifies the bid].
JANE SQUIRES:
He starts it at 75 and [the buyer] bids, that would be 80
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
What, if he clinches his fist and puts it up?
JANE SQUIRES:
What would be 80. That would be 70.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Down?
JANE SQUIRES:
That would be 76.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
One finger up would be 76.
JANE SQUIRES:
From 75, from 80 that would be 81.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
So if you started off and 75 and a guy holds up his clinched fist?
JANE SQUIRES:
That's 80.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
That jumps it to 80. And if someone else was to hold up one finger, they'd be bidding for 81?
JANE SQUIRES:
After he bid the 80, exactly.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
OK. So you're scanning the line of buyers to see their signs. And they have hand signals that indicate [the amount of their bids]. Could you explain those for me?
JANE SQUIRES:
It's pretty much like sign language.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Ok.
JANE SQUIRES:
Zero [is a] fist.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
A clinched fist.
JANE SQUIRES:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Or , 6, 7, 8, 9, 0. Depending on where he starts. If he started it at 80 and [the buyer] wanted to bid 79, that's 79.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
So [the buyer] would hold four fingers down to indicate that it was . .
JANE SQUIRES:
79, because that [holding 4 fingers up] would be 84.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Ok, so the position they [hold their fingers indicates the amount of the bid.] Is that standard hand signals?
JANE SQUIRES:
It's universal.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
I've often heard about buyers that have sort of private signals.
JANE SQUIRES:
I always tell then not to play "hide the bid from the auctioneer."
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Is that something that . . . . . .
JANE SQUIRES:
Some people like to be, some buyers had their own style, which was fine. And it may take a day or two to get used to that buyer. Especially the "old school" buyer. But I'd rather have . . . well I can't say that. I love my young buyers too. But it's a pleasure to work with a group of seasoned tobacco buyers that have impeccable mechanics. It's a pleasure. But it's such a rarity now days.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
You say they have impeccable mechanics?
JANE SQUIRES:
The sale mechanics of their bidding is like second nature to them. They don't have to stop and think, they're walking the whole time. Never second guess themselves. A seasoned buyer is such a joy. But there are some young buyers that great too. I have too now that I wouldn't trade for anything. They're young but they want to keep their jobs so they had to be a little bit better than average.