10 Things You Didn't Know About the History of Smoking

In Victorian England, the meerschaum pipe -- reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes -- was a status symbol.
In Victorian England, the meerschaum pipe -- reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes -- was a status symbol.

Few things in life truly become universal human experiences, but smoking earned that title without much trouble at all.

The story comes up again and again: A trader, usually an English trader, sets foot in a new land. He lights up with the locals, and he just can't stop. He gets a bag of the stuff and he takes it with him. In the spirit of friendship, he shares it with everyone he meets. Economies are created, and societies are changed. And it's all for the sake of a little smoke.


That's the history of smoking in a nutshell, and that history is, in many respects, driven by adventure, greed and friendship. But more than anything, it's driven by addiction.

And oh, how we love it. It's a medicine! It's a hobby! It's a gift from God! Or maybe it's a god in itself.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain: Once we got started, it took rigid social strictures to get us to stop. In fact, it's taken us nearly 500 years to start to regain our self-control when it comes to smoking.

Here, we'll delve into 10 things you may not know about the history of smoking.

10: Smoking Was Used to Cure Ailments and Make Magic

From the time the Europeans were introduced to tobacco, they understood that its smoke had served as a critical tool for the shamans and curanderos (folk healers) of South America. It had not only played a role in curing ailments like snakebites and toothaches; it was sacred as well. It was so sacred that the Aztecs thought the body of a goddess of childbirth and fertility was made of tobacco.

The shamans of one Central American tribe would rub a paste of tobacco on pregnant women to protect them from witchcraft. Tobacco was the central ingredient in elaborate brews. One treatment for gout involved making a foot bath of tobacco tea that included these preparations: Start by using leaves that had been left in a ditch so that ants could walk on them, then mix in some special rocks and the ground flesh and excrement of a fox. Then steep the stuff and soak your feet.


Tobacco smoke was the food that fed the spirits that inhabited the shamans, and in some South American tribes, surviving tobacco intoxication was part of the rite of initiation.

9: The "Ale-in-the-Face" Story Probably Isn't True

This engraving depicts the tale of Sir Walter Raleigh's servant dousing him with water, thinking Raleigh is on fire as he smokes a pipe.
This engraving depicts the tale of Sir Walter Raleigh's servant dousing him with water, thinking Raleigh is on fire as he smokes a pipe.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Any telling of the history of smoking is not complete without the "ale-in-the-face" story from Elizabethan times. The story is usually told about Sir Walter Raleigh, the figure widely credited with introducing smoking to England. In the story, he has settled down in front of a fire with a pipe, and his servant was so alarmed at the sight that he threw a tankard of ale at his master because he thought the knight's face was on fire.

It's a charming story, but it's probably not true.


Historians report a vast diversity of "ale-in-the-face" stories set in different historical sites and attributed to different historical figures. The story was much repeated in literature and theater in the late 1500s. With so many retellings, it has the feel of urban legend.

But it's worth considering why the Elizabethans got such a kick out of the story. To them, the sight of a smoking man had to be pretty strange, considering that they had never seen anyone set a fire quite so close to his face before.

8: Smoking Changed Quickly From Miracle Cure to Common Affliction

Historians seem to agree that the first tobacco was smoked in England sometime around 1560. It was a miracle cure! Then it was a pastime for the rich. By Sir Walter Raleigh's death in 1618, smoking had become pervasive at all levels of society.

The practice crept in under the protection and prescription of the shamans of the New World. It was a cure for just about anything. The problem was, once cured, you just couldn't stop smoking.


That fact didn't show up in the first report to Raleigh on the natural crops of the Virginia colony. Thomas Hariot, author of the report, says of smokers that "their bodies are noticeably preserved in health, and know not many grievous diseases wherewithall we in England sometimes are afflicted."

Interestingly, these claims were greeted with euphoria and skepticism from the outset. But no one could take away from the idea that the practice was exotic and very fashionable. The social appeal only added to the addiction.

Historians torment themselves over defining the point at which smoking shifted from medical practice to daily habit in Europe. Of course, doctors will tell you it happens at the point at which you first try it, for whatever reason.

7: In Some Tribes, Pipes Were the Only Nonessential Objects Carried

In some Native American tribes, the tobacco pipe was a vital part of diplomacy and trade.
In some Native American tribes, the tobacco pipe was a vital part of diplomacy and trade.

You might think of the tribes of the North American plains as fast and efficient. They only made room in their lives and their traveling packs for things they absolutely needed. The archeological record shows that the tobacco pipe was one of those things -- and that it was the only object carried that had no direct role in day-to-day survival.

In fact, tribes that never grew vegetables took time out from hunting to cultivate tobacco.


The presence of the pipe among all the tribes played no small part in diplomacy and trade; indeed, some historians argue that negotiations among tribes would have been impossible without the ceremony of smoking.

6: European Traders Spread Smoking Throughout the World

Although the presence and practices involved in smoking are entrenched on every continent, the practice didn't crop up spontaneously throughout the world. Once the Europeans were hooked, they took it with them everywhere.

The spread of smoking went along with the spread of European seafaring trade in the early 18th century. French and Portuguese traders took it to Africa. An English captain introduced it to Japan. The Chinese got it from Spanish and Portuguese traders.


Time and again, not long after it reached a new place, smoking would become a hallmark of the culture.

The water pipe, known as the hookah, came into fashion under the Moguls of India. It cooled the smoke and made it pleasant in a hot climate. In Africa, smoking was incorporated into weddings and religious rites. In Japan, it became associated in art with the floating world of the courtesans.

Once introduced, it became a universal human habit, crossing all geographic, cultural and social lines.

5: The First Efforts to Ban Smoking Started in the Early 1600s

King James I cracked down on smoking in the early 1600s, even imposing a 4,000 percent tax increase on tobacco.
King James I cracked down on smoking in the early 1600s, even imposing a 4,000 percent tax increase on tobacco.

Rulers worldwide became uncomfortable with smoking once it became part of life for the common people. The idea that the masses could devote part of life to enjoyment instead of work was too threatening in those times.

According to historians, it was not just a threat to the social order. The initial idea that tobacco increased the capacity for work was eroded by the idea that it made people lazy.


The Ottoman sultan Murad IV banned it in the 17th century because he considered it a threat to morals and health, and he tried to close the coffee houses where people gathered to smoke. Several Chinese emperors, dating from the mid-1600s, banned the practice among the common people. The Patriarch of Moscow, in 1634, not only banned smoking but also ordered whipping for men and women who violated the order. King James I condemned smoking in 1604 because it caused laziness and moral laxness. To send the message home, he imposed a 4,000 percent tax hike on tobacco.

Then as now, these bans and restrictions were largely unsuccessful, and rulers of many countries resolved their conundrum by starting state-controlled monopolies and profiting mightily from the vice of their subjects.

4: Smoking and Empire: How You Smoke Is Who You Are

You don't have to look any further than Sherlock Holmes to see the significance of the pipe in Victorian England. The rich smoked cigars, and the poor smoked clay pipes. But for the people in between, the way they smoked became a metaphor for their rise in English society.

Holmes, as you may recall, smoked a meerschaum pipe. Meerschaum, made from a type of stone mined in Turkey, was a hallmark of the nascent middle class because it required so much care.


The tobacco smoked cooler and tasted better in the meerschaum than in a clay pipe, and the owner of the pipe worked to help cultivate its color with use. The selection of a pipe was a rite of passage for young men. They kept silk handkerchiefs for the ceremony of wiping and conditioning the pipe after each use.

A much-used and cultivated pipe was a marker of status. The pipe was a hobby for people who had time for hobbies, and the result -- a pipe with a rich brown color -- showed the world the experience and expertise of the smoker.

3: Smoking and Suffrage: The Torch of Freedom

To entice women to smoke, Lucky Strike filled its ads with elegant actresses like Lilli Palmer and phrases like, "There's never a rough puff in a Lucky!"
To entice women to smoke, Lucky Strike filled its ads with elegant actresses like Lilli Palmer and phrases like, "There's never a rough puff in a Lucky!"
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Women weren't supposed to smoke. To put it another way, women who were not poor, not hookers and not actresses weren't supposed to smoke. At least, not in public.

The retreat of the men after dinner to the smoking room became a hallmark of Victorian times. This habit was largely instigated in the United States by the onset of the cigar, which throughout history has remained largely a male preserve in smoking.


Just like in Elizabethan times, smoking became dangerous to the social order. When women infringe upon a traditional male activity, it gets to be a problem.

Well, it appears that women were eager to start this kind of trouble about the same time as the cigarette entered the mass market. This was a product that women were welcome to consume. In fact, it was marketed to women as the "torch of freedom" and a tool by which they could overcome silly prejudices. In 1929, one cigarette manufacturer recruited 10 New York debutantes to walk down Fifth Avenue smoking Lucky Strikes. In the late '20s, when the Lucky Strike became the torch of freedom, sales tripled within three years.

And liberated women simply had to smoke.

2: Doctors Have Warned About Medical Issues Since the 18th Century

Sir Richard Doll started his pivotal work on smoking and lung cancer in 1948. The British physiologist is credited with being the first to prove that smoking causes lung cancer.

The doctor himself gave up smoking two-thirds of the way through his initial study. Though the research met with skepticism at first, it became the foundation for all subsequent research on the subject, as well as the underpinning of the international public health campaign against smoking.


Nonetheless, he wasn't the first doctor to raise the issue. In fact, the medical question was raised within a few decades after smoking became pervasive in England.

During a debate at Oxford on smoking in the early 18th century, opponents produced the blackened brains and charcoal-colored veins of smokers. In 1761, John Hill noted the presence of cancer of the nasal passages in smokers. In the mid-19th century, researchers did serious epidemiological studies.

One researcher noted in the medical journal "The Lancet" in 1857 that perhaps insurers should be asking customers whether they smoked.

1: There Are Now More Former Smokers in the U.S. Than Current Smokers

It may be a hard habit to kick, but for a variety of reasons, fewer Americans are smoking today than were lighting up 14 years ago.
It may be a hard habit to kick, but for a variety of reasons, fewer Americans are smoking today than were lighting up 14 years ago.

According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 20 percent of adults in America smoked in 2010. This number is down from nearly 25 percent in 1997. More than 25 percent of men identified themselves as former smokers, and more than 18 percent of women.

In the 1950s, 45 percent of Americans smoked. That rate continued at about 40 percent through the 1970s, according to the Gallup Poll.

How that happened will be the subject of doctoral dissertations for many years to come. There is some agreement, in these discussions, that hard facts about medical dangers don't make people quit. The hard facts were around for several decades, and indeed several centuries, before the percentage of smokers started to drift downward.

So what made people decide to quit? Was it the cost? It's no accident that smoking dropped off during the same era that states started employing punitive cigarette taxes. But any dedicated smoker will tell you that it really doesn't matter how much it costs.

So was it the ban in restaurants? The harsh stares? It's probably all of these things, and every smoker can recall some kind of formative incident that changed his point of view. It may just go back to that thing that got us started in the first place: It's all the rage.

For more great information, check out the links that follow.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Apperson, G.L. "The Social History of Smoking." Echo Library. 2006.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Current Smoking." National Health Interview Survey. March 2011. (June 7, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/201103_08.pdf
  • Gately, Iain. "Tobacco." Grove Press. 2003.
  • Gilman, Sander L. and Xun Zhou. "Smoke: A Global History of Smoking." Reaktion Books. 2004.
  • Goodman, Jordan. "Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence." Psychology Press. 1994.
  • Oils and Plants. "Folk Medicine 2 - African Tribal Medicine." (June 5, 2011) http://www.oilsandplants.com/folkmedicine2.htm
  • Saad, Lydia. "U.S. Smoking Rate Still Coming Down." Gallup. July 24, 2008. (June 7, 2011) http://www.gallup.com/poll/109048/US-Smoking-Rate-Still-Coming-Down.aspx
  • U.S. National Park Service. "Historic Jamestowne: Tobacco: Colonial Cultivation Methods." (June 5, 2011) http://www.nps.gov/jame/historyculture/tobacco-colonial-cultivation-methods.htm
  • Wilbert, Johannes. "Tobacco and Shamanism in South America." (June 5, 2011) http://www.hoboes.com/Politics/Prohibition/Notes/Shamanism/