I have been reading a long out-of-print (1914) book by George Apperson on the history of smoking. I had not appreciated before how cyclical was the promotion and suppression of smoking.
Apperson’s book is not the ‘History of Tobacco’ which has been frequently visited by authors, but the history of the fluctuations of fashion in respect of the practice of smoking, told through the medium of literature.
From the earliest recorded date, smoking in Britain was associated with pleasure rather than health as in the medicinal justification for Jean Nicot’s importation of tobacco seeds in France around 1560. Perhaps that is one reason for the regular attacks on the practice by Puritans from various ages?
Despite the myths surrounding Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘introduction of tobacco’, it seems to be well documented that Raleigh only made tobacco smoking fashionable – he didn’t introduce it, but he did suffer from the earliest efforts of vigilantes to stamp out the practice of smoking, various tales of him having water or beer thrown over him to douse the smoke attest to this. This would be around 1620 – it had taken a mere 60 years to forge the earliest ‘anti-smoking’ vigilante.
By 1692, we had the first ‘anti-smoking’ spin Doctor in the form of Ben Johnson’s ‘Cob’ in Bobadil –
“Cob, the anti-tobacconist, who, with equal exaggeration on the other side, denounces tobacco, and declares that four people had died in one house from the use of it in the preceding week, and that one had “voided a bushel of soot”!
The first ban was proposed in 1621 in the House of Commons by Sir William Stroud:
“moved that he “would have tobacco banished wholly out of the kingdom, and that it may not be brought in from any part, nor used amongst us”
Stroud was not successful, his motion was rejected.
Tobacco was mainly sold by pharmacies, and it is well documented that most pharmacies sold more tobacco than any of their other products. Certainly the tobacco was more profitable.
It is uncertain when licences were first issued for the sale of tobacco, it was documented in 1633 that a stocking maker and a thread seller had been licensed to sell tobacco – but also that in 1628, two Inn keepers in Norwich were fined 30 shillings each “for suffering parishioners to smoke” in their ale houses. Medieval Nick Hogans!
The tiny Norfolk village of Methwold, where I once lived, claims the distinction of being the first ‘Sandwell Council’, for in 1695, they decided:
“We agree that any person that is taken smoakeinge tobacco in the street shall forfitt one shillinge for every time so taken, and itt shall be lawfull for the petty constabbles to distrane for the same for to be putt to the uses abovesaid [_i.e._ “to the use of the town”].
They promptly fined one Nicholas Baker one shilling for ‘smoakeinge in the street’…
While we are in the East Anglia note that in 1694 there died at Ely an apothecary named Henry Crofts, who owned, among some other unusual items in his inventory, casks of brandy and tobacco, which shows that even at that date, when regular tobacconists’ shops for the sale of tobacco had long been common, the old business connexion between apothecaries and tobacco still existed.
But early in 1655 there is sign of restricting and limiting the hitherto unbounded freedom granted to the use of tobacco. The London Society of Apothecaries on August 15, 1655, held a meeting; and from the minutes of this meeting we learn that by ‘general consent’ it was forbidden henceforward to smoke in the Court Room while dining or sitting, under penalty of half a crown.
Towards the close of the seventeenth century there was some waning in the universal popularity of tobacco. The more fashionable folk of the Restoration Era and later began to leave off, if not to disdain the smoking-habit.
There was the first intimation of the snobbish qualities of the Righteous. The Frenchman Sorbie commented that “People of Quality” did not use tobacco so much as others – smoking became the province of the lower classes. With the reign of Queen Anne tobacco had entered on a period, destined to be of long duration, when smoking was to a very large extent under a social ban. ‘Not smoking’ became a way of distinguishing yourself from the ‘common folk’.
In the fashionable world the snuff-box was all-powerful. Today it is the sniff-box of cocaine which fuels the Metroland world, the same world which is so keen to ban tobacco.
Smoking was frowned upon, even in places where hitherto it had been allowed. In 1812 the authorities of Sion College ordered “that Coffee and Tea be provided in the Parlour for the Visitors and Incumbents, and in the Court Room for the Curates and Lecturers; and that Pipes and Tobacco be not allowed.
The use of tobacco for smoking had reached its nadir in the fashionable world, but the dawn follows the darkest hour, and the revival of smoking was at hand, thanks to the cigar.
At first even cigar-smoking was confined to comparatively few persons, and the social prejudice against tobacco continued unabated. By 1830 smoking had so far become fashionable again that a considerable proportion of the members of the House of Commons were smokers. Cigars were suitably expensive, and allowed the ‘upper classes’ to smoke and still distinguish themselves from the lower orders.
“Here,” wrote Dickens, “in a dark wainscoted-room of ancient appearance, cheered by the glow of a mighty fire … sat the lusty coal-heavers, quaffing large draughts of Barclay’s best, and puffing forth volumes of smoke, which wreathed heavily above their heads, and involved the room in a thick dark cloud.” These good folk and others of their kin had never been affected by any change of fashion in respect of smoking.
The social attitude towards smoking in early Victorian days, and for some time later, was curious. The development of cigar-smoking among those classes from which tobacco had long been practically banished, and the natural consequent spread downwards of the use of cigars – in accordance with the invariable law of fashion – together with the continued devotion to the pipe among those whose love of tobacco had never slackened, made smoking a much more general practice than it had been for some generations.
Notwithstanding that the number of smokers had increased, and was continually increasing, smoking was regarded socially as something of a vice – to be practised in inconvenient places and not too publicly. Apperson quotes the preface to Thakeray:
“No gentleman in those days was seen smoking even a ‘weed’ in the streets. Thackeray, in the seventeenth chapter of the “Book of Snobs,” speaks of dandies smoking their cigars upon the steps of “White’s,”
Cigarettes were practically unheard of in England, and outside one’s private smoking-room pipes were tabooed. Men in Society slunk into their smoking-rooms, or, when there was no smoking-room, into the kitchen or servants’ hall, after the domestics had retired.”
The origin of the smoking jacket and smoking cap was to protect the normal clothes of smokers from carrying the smell of smoke into the drawing room, so secretive a habit had it become.
Lady Dorothy Nevill, who lived to see the third revival of smoking’s fortunes, in 1915, said that she thought the greatest minor change in social habits which she had witnessed was that in the attitude assumed towards smoking, which, in her youth, “and even later, was, except in certain well-defined circumstances, regarded as little less than a heinous crime.”
A striking example of the attitude in the mid-nineteenth century towards tobacco was found in connexion with railways and railway travelling. In the early days of such travel there were ‘no smoking’ compartments, and indeed smoking was “strictly forbidden” practically everywhere on railway premises.
World War 1 seems to have been the catalyst for the next revival in the fortunes of smoking.
“There are occasions, such as in the trenches during military operations, when worn out with exposure and fatigue, or when exhausted by slow starvation with no food in prospect, when a pipe or cigar will be a welcome and valuable friend in need, resting the weary limbs, cheering the fainting heart, allaying the gnawing hunger of the empty stomach.” said Dr Norman Kerr, previously an arch opponent of smoking.
Slowly ‘smoking carriages’ were opened up on the trains to transport the brave men to and from the front.
Apperson bemoans the fact that ‘The cigar and the cigarette were first introduced among the upper classes of society, and their use has spread downward. They have broken down many barriers, and in many places, and under many and divers conditions, the pipe has followed triumphantly in their wake; but the last ditch of the old prejudice has been found in the convention, which, in certain places and at certain times, admits the cigar and cigarette of fashionable origin, but bars the entry of the plebeian pipe–the pipe which for two centuries was practically the only mode of smoking used.’
First the military men – and then women – took up smoking, and much of the earlier objection to smoking was from women objecting to the smell – now that they smoked cigarettes themselves, it seems their ire was reserved for the pipe.
The book ends in the 1930s, when ‘Tobacco was once again triumphant’ – smoking had survived citizens being fined for smoking in the street, survived smokers being confined to the doorways of pubs and clubs, survived landlords being fined for permitting smoking in their premises, survived being frowned upon by the chattering classes, come in an out of fashion as it was variously taken up in different forms by the upper classes, aped by the working classes, slowly dropped as unfashionable and then taken up again in some new form by the upper classes.
Truly there is nothing new in the current ‘anti-smoking’ furore. We need a new form of cigarette, one that incorporates cocaine – then it will become fashionable again, and the wheel can turn once more…….