Puffing Through The American Past

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Within a century after Columbus and his crew first encountered Cuban natives “with a firebrand in the hand and herbs to drink the smoke thereof,” much of Western civilization had taken to tobacco in all its forms—an addiction brought back to the New World in which the sotweed had been discovered. Tobacco was colonial America’s chief export and it remains— pace the Surgeon General—a steadily expanding, multibillion-dollar industry. Much of our history was witnessed through a haze of tobacco smoke, and those Americans who did not smoke, often chewed: as early as 1704 even the pious citizens of New Haven Colony were alleged by a lady visitor “to keep chewing and spitting as long as their eyes are open.” By the mid-nineteenth century there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small-time manufacturers of cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing plugs scattered across America. Competition was brisk, and then as now, survival often depended less on the product than on the way it was packaged. The finest tobacco labels were masterpieces of the commercial lithographer’s art. As many as twenty-two colored inks were used to create a single gaudy, gorgeous image, and they were often printed on the finest silk- or satin-finished papers, thickly embossed and glittering with imitation gold, silver, or bronze. Pretty girls and genre scenes sold well, of course, but so did themes from American history, offering a little patriotism with every puff or bite. The labels on the following pages recall the optimism of a time when Americans could do no wrong, their horizons had no limits, and destiny was manifest everywhere, including the tobacco store on the corner.

‚ G.C.W.