The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)


Everyone smokes and some chew in America,” wrote Isaac Weld in 1795. Americans turned tobacco, a new and controversial stimulant at the time of colonial settlement, into a crucially important staple crop and made its heavy use a commonplace—and a never-ending source of surprise and indignation to visitors. Tobacco use spread in the United States because it was comparatively cheap, a homegrown product free from the heavy import duties levied on it by European governments. A number of slave rations described in plantation documents included “one hand of tobacco per month.” Through the eighteenth century most American smokers used clay pipes, which are abundant in colonial archeological sites, although some men and women dipped snuff or inhaled powdered tobacco.

Where the smokers of early colonial America “drank” or gulped smoke through the short, thick stems of their seventeenth-century pipes, those of 1800 inhaled it more slowly and gradually; from the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, pipe stems became steadily longer and narrower, increasingly distancing smokers from their burning tobacco.

In the 1790s cigars, or “segars,” were introduced from the Caribbean. Prosperous men widely took them up; they were the most expensive way to consume tobacco, and it was a sign of financial security to puff away on “longnines” or “principe cigars at three cents each” while the poor used clay pipes and much cheaper “cut plug” tobacco. After 1800 in American streets, barrooms, stores, public conveyances, and even private homes it became nearly impossible to avoid tobacco chewers. Chewing extended tobacco use, particularly into workplaces; men who smoked pipes at home or in the tavern barroom could chew while working in barns or workshops where smoking carried the danger of fire.

“In all the public places of America,” wrote Charles Dickens, multitudes of men engaged in “the odious practice of chewing and expectorating,” a recreation practiced by all ranks of American society. Chewing stimulated salivation and gave rise to a public environment of frequent and copious spitting, where men every few minutes were “squirting a mouthful of saliva through the room.”

Spittoons were provided in the more meticulous establishments, but men often ignored them. The floors of American public buildings were not pleasant to contemplate. A courtroom in New York City in 1833 was decorated by a “mass of abomination” contributed to by “judges, counsel, jury, witnesses, officers, and audience.” The floor of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1827 was “actually flooded with their horrible spitting,” and even the aisle of a Connecticut meetinghouse was black with the “ejection after ejection, incessant from twenty mouths,” of the men singing in the choir. In order to drink, an American man might remove his quid, put it in a pocket or hold it in his hand, take his glassful, and then restore it to his mouth. Women’s dresses might even be in danger at fashionable balls. “One night as I was walking upstairs to valse,” reported Margaret Hall of a dance in Washington in 1828, “my partner began clearing his throat. This I thought ominous. However, I said to myself, ‘surely he will turn his head to the other side.’ The gentleman, however, had no such thought but deliberately shot across me. I had not courage enough to examine whether the result landed in the flounce of my dress.”

The segar and the quid were almost entirely male appurtenances, but as the nineteenth century began, many rural and lower-class urban women were smoking pipes or dipping snuff. During his boyhood in New Hampshire, Horace Greeley remembered, “it was often my filial duty to fill and light my mother’s pipe.”

After 1820 or so tobacco use among women in the North began to decline. Northern women remembered or depicted with pipe or snuffbox were almost all elderly. More and more Americans adopted a genteel standard that saw tobacco use and womanliness—delicate and nurturing—as antithetical, and young women avoided it as a pollutant. For them, tobacco use marked off male from female territory with increasing sharpness.

After 1800, in public and private it became nearly impossible to avoid tobacco chewers.

In the households of small Southern and Western farmers, however, smoking and snuff taking remained common. When women visited “among the country people” of North Carolina, Frances Kemble Butler reported in 1837, the “proffer of the snuffbox, and its passing from hand to hand, is the usual civility.” By the late 1830s visiting New Englanders were profoundly shocked when they saw the women of Methodist congregations in Illinois, including nursing mothers, taking out their pipes for a smoke between worship services.