Background to Smoking: The Growth of a Social Habit

Stephen Coleman traces the history of smoking, from its American beginnings to the twentieth century mass market.

Gentlemen Smoking and Playing Backgammon in an Interior by Dirck Hals, 1627.Thomas Middleton’s play, The Roaring Girl, is not the best known, nor indeed the most hilarious, of Jacobean comedies. But the title page of its first edition in 1611 has a certain interest for students of the social period—particularly for any student who may be concerned with the history of the tobacco trade. There stands Mary Frith, otherwise “Moll Cutpurse,”“a bold virago, stout and tall,” dressed in a man’s doublet and breeches and puffing at a clay pipe. Mary Frith was the scandal of her sex, courtesan, pickpocket, highway-robber and receiver of stolen goods; and the pipe she carries completed the dramatist’s picture of intrepid infamy. Middleton died in 1627; and during his lifetime the smoking habit was only gradually becoming acclimatized. James I had made it a subject of royal reproof, thundering against this nauseous new mode in tones of pedantic indignation; and, somewhat earlier, when the great Christopher Marlowe was arraigned before the Privy Council, tobacco-addiction was listed among the poet’s vices. Marlowe, of course, belonged to Raleigh’s circle, suspected by their contemporaries both of loose-living and of free-thinking; and James, who signed Raleigh’s death-warrant, certainly implied that he was the “father” of the practice he so heartily condemned. This may or may not have been true. But there is no doubt that he hoped to popularize it, and that, for many years after Raleigh’s death, smoking for pleasure was still a badge of moral non-conformity. Elizabethan smoking-parties were widely considered rather less innocent than a tavern drinking-party; and in public places pipes were produced behind the curtains of a special enclosure.

The date at which tobacco was originally brought to England has been a matter of much research, and recent scholarship has tended to place its introduction ever earlier in the sixteenth century. Among English voyagers to North America, the chronicler of Sir John Hawkins’s expedition of 1564, John Sparke, seems to have been the first to comment on the smoking habits of the Indians. Sparke thought that the Indians of Florida took tobacco as a substitute for food, and in that swampy region, where native agriculture was very ill developed, they may well have done so—for many smokers of today, who have attempted to give up tobacco, will confirm that one of the first effects of abstinence is an increased appetite. “The Floridians,” Sparke wrote,

“when they travel, have a kind of herb dried, who, with a cane and an earthen cup in the end, with fire and the dried herbs put together, do suck through the cane and the smoke thereof, which smoke satisfieth their hunger, and therewith they live four or five days without meat or drink.” 

Hawkins’s men are not recorded as having been tempted to imitate the Indians; some twenty years later, however, the colonists despatched to Virginia by Raleigh took to smoking as a solace and relaxation in the hard, pioneering conditions that confronted them. An account of their experiences was later published by Raleigh’s former tutor, Thomas Harriot, a mathematician to whom we owe some of the formulae of modern algebra, and who was official geographer to the expedition. “We ourselves,” Harriot wrote in his Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia of 1588,

“tried their way of inhaling the smoke, both during our stay in Virginia and after our return, and have had many rare and wonderful proofs of the beneficial effects of this plant. ...”

Tobacco, Harriot explained, opened the pores and passages, purged the body of excessive humours, and preserved it from many infections common in England, but unknown in America. Much was to be written in the succeeding years about the medicinal properties of tobacco; in London, during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean age, it was generally obtainable from apothecaries’ shops, where special rooms were often set aside for its consumption, and smokers were expected to exhale the preservative smoke through their nostrils, so that the widest circulation was given to it within the head. Doctors, then as now, were sharply divided about the merits and demerks of tobacco; while some sided loyally with King James, others heartily recommended it as a disinfectant and prophylactic. The plagues of the seventeenth century created a special demand; during the Great Plague of 1665 the scholars of Eton were encouraged to inure themselves by smoking a pipe every morning, and Pepys records buying some “roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw” in order to ease the apprehensions he felt on seeing the plague-crossed houses of Drury Lane.

From earliest times, however, pleasure has always been the principal reason for smoking tobacco, as the Spaniards, who were the first Europeans to discover it, were soon made aware. The accounts of Columbus’s first voyage, in 1492, speak of the natives of Cuba inducing an agreeable state of semi-coma by the use of “smoking reeds,” and it was not long before the Spaniards also were sampling them. When they reached Mexico, early in the sixteenth century, the Spaniards found smoking widespread among the Aztecs; it had there acquired a ritualistic significance, as among the other Indian tribes of North America, who were later, though all too rarely, to smoke “the pipe of peace” with white men. Cortez’s men observed that, after his public banquets, the last Emperor of Mexico used to puff at a leisurely ceremonial pipe, leaning back in his leathern chair of state, while dancers and tumblers performed before him. His tobacco was specially ground in his presence in a rosewood mill, which added a delicate fragrance to the smoke. While Montezuma’s propitiatory smoke was rising in vain before the eyes of the Conquistadores, smoking was already becoming firmly established in Spain and Portugal. As early as 1523, Diego Columbus, the son of the discoverer, had left a legacy in his will to a tobacco merchant in Lisbon. If there were merchants then specializing in tobacco, an appreciable trade must obviously have been in existence, and since, there was much traffic in cloth and wine and other goods between Lisbon and the English ports—and particularly Bristol, which was later, and appropriately, to become the headquarters of the finn of Wills—it is hard to believe that some quantities of tobacco did not reach England many decades before .our own travellers brought it back from Virginia.

The most remarkable feature of the early history of tobacco is the speed with which the habit of smoking spread throughout the world; evidently it supplied the popular want of a soothing distraction that was becoming increasingly felt as the complex problems of the modern living began to take shape after the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Discovery. To illustrate the appeal of smoking, sometimes in the most unlikely places, a few examples only need be cited. In the sixteenth century, for instance, a succession of Popes issued ordinances against the taking of tobacco in Church, and, in especial, against the practice among priests of smoking and snuffing immediately before the eucharist. Not long afterwards, many of the Electoral Princes of Germany, taking an unprecedented interest in the health of their subjects, were ineffectually fulminating against the stupor and indolence that they alleged overcame “those who smoked their brains away.” Farther to the East, the first Romanov Grand Duke of Muscovy tried by ukase to prevent his dominions from being contaminated by this foreign habit. And the Grand Turk himself, the bloodthirsty Murad IV, soon decided that the use of tobacco went with dangerous thoughts, and many a citizen of Constantinople, newly accustomed to smoke a pipe with his interminable cups of coffee, came to a mangled and miserable end at the hands of the Sultan’s guards. Meanwhile, through the voyages of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch sailors, tobacco had been carried round Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope to India, Java, the Philippines and Japan. It is curious to think that hardly fifty years had gone by since the discovery of tobacco before Portuguese sailors were introducing it as a Western habit to the island empire of “Xipangu,” that had hitherto been known to Europe only through the second-hand accounts of Marco Polo.

The rapid distribution of tobacco geographically was only matched by its ever more intensive consumption. In England, one of the earliest acts of King James was to impose a swingeing duty on imported tobacco; under Queen Elizabeth the rate had been 2d. a pound; in 1604 the King increased it, by no less than 4,000 per cent, to 6s. 10d. a pound. The growing plantations of Virginia were for a while hit hard by this and by other restrictive measures, but the Englishman’s determination to smoke was apparently little affected by the laws that his rulers thought good for him. In 1614, Barnaby Rich, in a satirical pamphlet entitled The Honesty of the Age, calculated, perhaps optimistically, that London already boasted seven thousand shops where tobacco was sold. It would be “an ill-customed shop,” he reckoned, “that taketh not five shillings a day, but let us make our account but after two shillings and sixpence a day ...” That would amount to £319,375 a year, “all spent in smoke.” The demand represented by this large sum of money was able to find its supplies because, in his arrangements for controlling the trade, the King had overlooked that his import duties did not apply to Spanish products; also, that thanks to Raleigh, and other pioneer cultivators, tobacco had by now been thoroughly naturalized in southern England and parts of Ireland. The anomaly about Spanish tobacco was put right in 1619, and at approximately the same time the. Government launched a campaign, that was to be stringently pursued by its successors throughout the century, to prohibit tobacco-growing in Britain.

At one stage in the seventeenth century there were as many as 6,000 plantations, mainly in south-western England, and there are records from Charles I’s reign of troops of soldiers being ordered to charge across the tobacco fields, trampling down the crops for the sake of law and revenue. Two motives prompted this policy of suppressing home-cultivation: one was to protect the monopoly of the Virginia growers and their English merchants, who enjoyed a considerable political influence; and the other to safeguard the sums earned for the Treasury from duties on imports and from the granting of tobacco licences, for it was beyond the capacity of an administration in those days to collect excise on a large and scattered home-grown production. In result, between 1619 and 1630, Virginian exports rose from 20,000 pounds to 1,300,000 pounds a year, a large proportion being consumed in England, where King James’s heavy duties had meanwhile been substantially lowered. Soon the English were smoking a million pounds of tobacco a year; by the reign of Queen Anne it was 12 million pounds a year, or, roughly, 2 pounds per head of population, a figure not surpassed until the beginning of the present century.

Pipe-smoking in these years was the rule in England—at least until the early eighteenth century—and the kind of pipe commonly used was a short, shallow clay, later to be known as a “cutty”; for the long-stemmed “church-warden” came in from Holland only in the reign of William III. The seventeenth-century philosophers, inquisitive of all things, sampled tobacco and were agreed upon the pleasures of pipe-smoking: “it hath the power to lighten the body and shake off uneasiness,” Bacon considered; it was “a rare and singular virtue,” wrote Hobbes, who customarily filled and laid out a dozen pipes before beginning a day’s work at his desk; and Locke, with a moralist’s perception of its habit-forming qualities, observed that “bread or tobacco may be neglected, but reason at first recommends them, trial and custom makes them pleasant.” But though philosophers might smoke in their studies, squires in the libraries of their manor-houses and humbler men in the rooms set apart in taverns, smoking at large and in public was still considered most disrespectful, and a sign of low breeding. The worst insult that the Parliamentary guards could devise for Charles I, at the time of his trial, was to puff smoke in front of his nostrils as he passed between them, and strew his path with broken pipestems. No doubt, the powerful, and often coarse, aromas of early tobaccos were responsible for this distaste among the fastidious, but gentlemen of breeding were not long to remain proof against the pleasures of nicotiana tabacum, made palatable in another form. Their requirements were met by the first great innovation in the history of tobacco-habits: the introduction of snuff at the court of Charles II.

Snuff, of course, had for long been the form of tobacco most acceptable to courtiers and men of the world in continental Europe. In spite of the daunting disapproval of Cardinal Richelieu and of Louis XIV, snuff-taking at the French court had become as much an art as making an engaging leg, plying a rapier in defence of one’s honour and conveying, with the utmost blandness, a verbal insult. A century earlier, Jean Nicot, French Ambassador to Portugal, who was an inveterate searcher into botanical novelties, had been credited with introducing the use of snuff to that connoisseur of potions, Queen Catherine de Medici, and for a time tobacco was honorifically known in France as l'herbe médicée. Jean Nicot has given his name to the tobacco plant, which is immortality enough, but it is doubtful whether he brought to France more than a sample of seeds, and a receipt for a pharmaceutical concoction made from its leaves. Certain it is, however, that England took to snuff through the close, and often clandestine, connections between the Whitehall of Charles II and the Versailles of the Roi Soleil. In cleanliness and convenience, snuff had many advantages over the previous forms of tobacco known to our seventeenth-century ancestors, and it is not surprising that people who cared deeply for the elegancies of life should have preferred taking snuff to having themselves and their clothes smell strongly of primitive pipe-tobacco. The enthusiastic adoption of snuff-taking by men of fashion is admirably described by Macaulay in his great History; of the coffee houses of St. James’s, after the Glorious Revolution of 1689, he writes:

“The atmosphere was like that of a perfumer’s shop. Tobacco in any other form than that of richly scented snuff was held in abomination. If any clown, ignorant of the usages of the house,' called for a pipe, the sneers, of the whole assembly and the short answers of the waiters soon convinced him that he had better go somewhere else. Nor, indeed, would he have had far to go. For, in general, the coffee rooms reeked with tobacco like a guard room, and strangers sometimes expressed their surprise that so many people should leave their own firesides to' sit in the midst of eternal ffog and stench.”

Pipe-smoking, however, was by no means at once eclipsed, for about this time Sir Roger de Coverley was presented in the pages of the Spectator as regularly calling at a tobacconist’s on his way to Westminster Abbey to buy a roll of Virginia, ten inches long, three inches thick, and sweetened with treacle, from which he cut off a slice for a pipeful whenever the exigencies of conversation at his club required. Even towards the end of the century, when Dr. Johnson roundly declared that “smoking has gone out,” going on to add that “to be sure, it is a shocking thing, blowing smoke out of our mouths into other people’s mouths, eyes and noses, and having the same thing done to us,” he can have been referring only to what was known as polite society. For, as in most matters of social history, the innovations in tobacco have been adopted in the higher spheres of London, Bath and other fashionable places, while in cottages, workshops and country manor-houses the old habits have prevailed.

As it had been with snuff, so it was to be with cigars. In Spain and Portugal and their colonies, the cigar, which literally means a roll of tobacco, had for long been widely smoked; but in England, except to a few sea-captains, it was almost unknown until after the Napoleonic wars. Many of Wellington's young office; had by then acquired a taste for Havanas during their service in the Peninsular war. The duties on the importation of cigars into England, however, were still extremely high and it was not until these were reduced, some ten years after Waterloo, that cigar smoking became the accomplishment of Byronic young men, and of the villains of many an early nineteenth-century novel. Byron himself, and Trelawny, had both smoked cigars—Trelawny on horseback, as he cantered with Byron and Leigh Hunt through the Italian countryside; but a cigar was a form of sensuous enjoyment only to be indulged in at the right time and the appropriate place. For example, it could be enjoyed after dinner and on a balcony:

“ ‘Gad, what a fine night, and how bright the moon is!’ George said, with a puff of his cigar, which went soaring up skywards.

“ ‘How delicious they smell in the open air!

I adore them. Who’d think the moon was two hundred and thirty-six thousand eight hundred and forty-seven miles off? ’ Becky added, gazing at that orb with a smile.”

But there were places and occasions to which the use of tobacco was utterly inappropriate; and a subsequent chapter of Vanity Fair describes how James Crawley, visiting his rich aunt, Miss Crawley, makes the unforgivable mistake of smoking in his bedroom. Next morning he is handed a note:

“‘Dear Sir,’ it said, ‘Miss Crawley has passed an exceedingly disturbed night, owing to the shocking manner in which the house has been polluted by tobacco. Miss Crawley bids me say she regrets that she is too unwell to see you before you go, and above all that she ever induced you to remove from the alehouse, where she is sure you will be much more comfortable during the rest of your stay at Brighton.’”

Queen Victoria, we know, shared Miss Crawley’s prejudices; and a bishop staying at Balmoral was once reduced to lying on his bedroom carpet and smoking up the chimney.

It took one way to popularize the cigar: another launched the cigarette. From the Crimean campaign young officers brought home the Eastern habit of cigarette-smoking, and thereafter it rapidly gained ground, though at first only among the wealthier and more fashionable classes. Thus, in Under Two Flags, published in 1867, while Ouida’s guardsman, the Hon. Bertie Cecil, reclines on “the softest of sofas” puffing clouds of fragrant smoke “out of a great meerschaumbowl,” he provides cigarettes for the friends who are privileged to attend his parties. Here is Ouida’s vision of a smoking room:

“A spacious easy chamber ... lined with the laziest of divans, seen just now through a fog of smoke, and tenanted by nearly a score of men in every imaginable loose velvet costume. ... Some were puffing away in calm meditative comfort ... others were talking hard and fast, and through the air heavily weighted with the varieties of tobacco, from tiny cigarettes to giant cheroots, from rough bowls full of cavendish to sybaritic rose-water hookahs, a Babel of sentences rose together”

Cigarettes, too, later in the century, are naturally smoked by the dandies and wicked noblemen of Oscar Wilde’s plays and novels. They are also mentioned in his poems—for example, in The Harlot's House where, as the spectral dancers spin round the ballroom floor—

“Sometimes a horrible marionette Came out, and smoked its cigarette Upon the steps like a live thing.”

The poet himself, of course, was a cigarette-smoker; and at the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, besides instructing the hero, when in mourning for his imaginary friend Bunbury, to produce a cigarette with a black tip, he responded to the applause of the audience by walking on to the stage with a cigarette between his fingers—a piece of lighthearted effrontery that occasioned considerable public surprise. Meanwhile the habit had begun to penetrate very different social levels. Admirers of Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (published in 1892) will recollect that, whereas Mr. Pooter prefers a pipe, and Gowing and Farmerson are addicted to strong cigars, Mr. and Mrs. Murray Posh, whose daughter, “Lillie Girl,” has become betrothed to the Pooters’ son, Lupin, follow the newer and more exotic fashion.

“They all smoked cigarettes after dinner, including Miss Posh, who startled Carrie by saying: ‘Don’t you smoke, dear ? ’

I answered for Carrie, and said: ‘Mrs. Charles Pooter is not arrived at it yet,’ whereupon Miss Posh gave one of her piercing laughs again.”

The final stage in the popularization of the cigarette seems to have occurred during the first World War. “Woodbine Willie” was a legendary consoler and Baimsfather’s privates are inseparable from their crumpled fag-ends. By the 1920’s smoking was a mass habit, practised almost as much by women as by men, the ubiquitous Virginia cigarette of today replacing the more aromatic Turkish and Egyptian varieties smoked by our grandfathers. Only the chronic shortage of dollars in the years that followed the Second World War, and the determination of successive Chancellors of the Exchequer to exact huge sums from the smoker, have in some degree bated the ever-increasing appetite of the Englishmen for tobacco. Today, the Treasury derives from smokers the largest contribution to its revenues after income tax, the duty per pound having been increased from 3s. 8d. in 1913 to its present level of 58s. 2d. Nevertheless, annual consumption has steadily climbed from about 2 lbs. per head at the beginning of this century to 4 lbs. per head in 1952, and of the 230,000,000 lbs., in round figures, that have been smoked in each post-war year, no less than five-sixths have been in the fragile form of cigarettes.

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