The New World of Tobacco

As Britain got hooked on tobacco, smoking paraphernalia became ubiquitous. Items such as tobacco boxes provide an insight into the anxieties and aspirations of the early modern psyche, says Angela McShane.

British men and women of all classes consumed tobacco in increasing quantities from the late 16th century onwards. Imported from the ‘New World’, by the middle of the 17th century the tobacco plant was being grown commercially in Europe, as well as in slave-worked plantations in the Americas. The addictive product was profitable, its trade was monopolistic and rife with crime and controversy. 

Debates raged in the press over its effects, while government dependence on the profits it generated had political implications. Attempts to undercut the American trade by establishing plantations in England led to riots and armed suppression, while the taxing of tobacco without parliamentary approval was one of the many crimes visited on Charles I’s unfortunate head.

When Paul Hetzner, a German jurist, visited England in 1598, he remarked on the physical and emotional hold that tobacco exerted on the early modern psyche:

I cannot refrain from a few words of protest against the astonishing fashion lately introduced from America – a sort of smoke tippling which enslaves its victims more completely than any other form of intoxication, old or new. These madmen will swallow and inhale with incredible eagerness the smoke of a plant they call herba nicotiana or tobacco.

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The New World of Tobacco