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Thank You For Not Smoking
THE HUNDRED-YEAR WAR AGAINST THE CIGARETTE
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Cigarettes apparently were developed in Latin America . and later turned up in seventeenth-century Spain as a kind of poor man’s cigar. Precisely how or when they first appeared between American lips is uncertain, but by 1854 imported cigarettes were common enough—in cosmopolitan New York City, at least—to attract the attention of one Dr. R. T. Trail, who noted with unconcealed disgust that “some of the ladies of this refined and fashion-forming metropolis are aping the silly ways of some pseudoaccomplished foreigners, in smoking Tobacco through a weaker and more feminine article, which has been most delicately denominated cigarette .”
Cigarettes hardly took the country by storm, however; by 1865 fewer than 20 million were manufactured in the United States (compared with 695 billion in 1978), all of them hand-rolled by urban workers, all composed of expensive imported tobaccos and most if not all of them smoked by those same citified and upper-class souls who so agitated Dr. Trail. By 1880 American cigarette production reached 500 million a year, but cigarettes remained an almost inconsequential aspect of the tobacco trade, then dominated by chewing tobacco, cigars, and pipe tobacco. Still, they clearly were catching on; by 1885, following the invention of a practical cigarette-rolling machine and a shift to domestic tobaccos, cigarette production passed the one-billion-a-year mark. By 1890 it topped two billion, and by 1895 some four billion cigarettes were manufactured in America, bearing such now-forgotten brand names as “Cameo,” “Duke’s Best,” “Sweet Caporal,” “Virginia Bright,” and “Old Judge.” Makings for millions of “roll-your-own” cigarettes also were sold every year.
Despite those seemingly dramatic increases, cigarettes quickly developed a most unsavory reputation. First, their newness made them easy targets for the vilest rumors; cigarette papers were said to be saturated with opium, arsenic, and other poisons. Cigarette tobacco reportedly was gleaned from cigar butts retrieved from urban gutters by derelicts and street urchins. More revolting was the widely circulated report that cigarette-factory workers urinated on the tobacco to give it “bite. ” The fact that cigarette smoke was inhaled—a practice not usually associated with cigar or pipe smoking—made the alleged “adulterations” even more dangerous. Cigarettes also faced severe “image” problems in the late nineteenth century. Their association with city types—as noted by Dr. Trail—hardly improved their reputation among the rural populace, and in contrast to the manly cigar, the reflective pipe, and the humble but honest chew, cigarettes seemed to be geared more toward a woman’s tastes than toward a man’s. The “ette” suffix by itself gave off a diminutive and therefore feminine air, and brand names such as “Opera Puffs” and “Pearl’s Pets” did little to offset this.
“The cigarette is designed for boys and women,” The New York Times decided in 1884, summing up the prevailing view. The Times added that “the decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes, and if this pernicious practice obtains among adult Americans the ruin of the Republic is close at hand.” While the Times may have exaggerated in assessing the impact of cigarettes on the national destiny, it was correct in predicting that they would appeal to women in ever-increasing numbers. Still, public smoking by women was rare in the nineteenth century, and cigarette manufacturers carefully avoided any overt appeals to the female smoking market. (In fact, not until the 1920’s would cigarette advertisers dare to portray an American woman even holding a cigarette. It’s worth noting that “Marlboro” brand cigarettes, whose filter-tipped descendants would become the favorite smoke of that quintessential rugged American, the Marlboro Man, were among the first to openly pursue the female smoker, using an alliterative—but most unrugged—slogan: “Marlboros: Mild as May.”) Although women smokers would become the object of antismoking efforts within a few decades, it was boy smokers who provided the initial focal point for the coming crusade.