History Today subscription

A man taking snuff, c.1790.

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.

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.

In his Counterblaste to Tobacco, published in 1604, James I complained that elite men found life as a non-smoker socially difficult:

Divers men very sound both in judgement, and complexion, have bene at last forced to take it [tobacco] also without desire, partly because they were ashamed to seeme singular.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week