The Pleasures of Tobacco

The Pleasures of Tobacco

Tobacco has a long history with humankind, you can read more about it below.

How to Smoke a Cigar

Guide to Pipe Smoking

Taking Snuff

A history lesson

Christopher Columbus observed the Indians of the Caribbean smoking tobacco, writing of “men with half-burnt wood in their hands.” According to one story, the first European to smoke was Rodrigo de Jerez, one of Columbus’s crew members, who sampled tobacco in the West Indies and brought a pinch home with him to Spain. Jerez’s wife, so the tale goes, later denounced him to the Inquisition as a man who “swallows fire, exhales smoke, and is surely possessed by the devil.”

Spanish explorers in Mexico found the Aztecs smoking crushed tobacco leaves in corn husks. Tobacco reached the European continent at least as early as 1558, when a Spanish physician named Francisco Fernandes, sent to the New World by King Philip II to report on its products, brought back some plants and seeds. The following year, Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, sent tobacco seeds to the French court of Catherine de Medici. The queen reported that tobacco cured her of crippling headaches, and she immortalized Nicot by proclaiming the new plant Nicotiana, a name recognizable in our word for tobacco’s most baleful element, nicotine.

Sir Walter RaleighSir Walter Raleigh may not have been the first to introduce tobacco in England. Some historians claim that one John Hawkins brought back the leaf in 1565 after a voyage to Florida. In any case, we know that Sir Walter had a large hand in popularizing tobacco smoking in Europe.

Raleigh sent Sir Francis Drake on an expedition to colonize Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1585. When the expedition failed, Drake returned to Europe. He brought some tobacco and smoking implements to Sir Walter, who soon became the most notorious smoker in Renaissance England. According to one story, Raleigh lit a pipe before Queen Elizabeth and was promptly rewarded with a dousing by a member of the court who thought Sir Walter was on fire. A die-hard smoker indeed, Raleigh even “tooke a pipe of tobacco a little before he went to the scaffolde.”

By 1600, the “dry drink” was fashionable in much of Europe. Many pipe smokers of the time carried hand-carved tobacco rammers, used to press the shredded leaf into the pipe bowl. Some of the more ornate rammers doubled as large finger rings. Smokers also had to carry ember tongs to hold the burning embers of juniper wood used to light their pipes.

Cigarettes were little known at the time. It was the beggars of Seville who get credit for creating the first paper-wrapped smokes.

Seventeenth-century doctors prescribed tobacco as a cure-all, fashioning the leaf into pills, plasters, poultices, oils, salts, tinctures, and balms. During the London plague of the 1660’s, many people smoked tobacco as a preventive. Even in the later part of the century, doctors continued to prescribe the leaf for such disparate ailments as hiccoughs, imbecility, jaundice, corpulence, syphilis, and “general lousiness,”, for everything except a bad cough.

Some physicians even recommended a tobacco-smoke enema for various ailments. The enema, administered with a device known as the Clyster pipe, was said by one doctor to be “excellent good against colic.” And James I of England proclaimed that the Clyster pipe was the only way to take one’s tobacco. Well, different smokes for different folks.

It’s odd that James would comment favorably on tobacco, in any form or guise, since the monarch had always been a bitter foe of the leaf. In his Counterblast to Tobacco, James described smoking as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” And you thought the government were harsh on tobacco!

Tobacco cultivation was important in the American colonies from their earliest history. In fact, before the Revolution, tobacco was legal tender in several Southern colonies with large plantations. Virginia enacted a law ordaining that taxes be paid in tobacco. George Washington, you’ll remember, was reported to have written from Valley Forge: “If you can’t send men, send tobacco.”

Woman smokingLong before cigarettes became popular here, the pipe was well entrenched. Pipe smoking was common even among women for a time, and the wives of two American presidents, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, were known to light up in the White House. Women pipe smokers are still numerous in China, where cigarettes are rarely encountered outside the major cities.

Speaking of female pipe smokers, perhaps you’ve heard the one about the young lady who retired to the cafeteria during her coffee break and lit up a pipe. “That’s a despicable habit,” remarked an elderly woman sitting nearby. “I would rather commit adultery than smoke!”
“So would I,” answered the young lady, “but there just isn’t enough time during a coffee break.”

The first men, or women, to smoke probably managed without any implements at all, simply inhaling smoke billowing from a bonfire of burning leaves. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that certain Scythian tribes “drank smoke” from a fire, inhaling the fumes of what was most likely marijuana.

The first pipe fashioned by man was probably a tube pipe, a simple hollow cylinder of wood or bone. Tube pipes have been found in almost every cranny of civilization, some dating back as far as 200 B.C. And the use of a curled-up leaf as a makeshift tube pipe later led to the invention of the cigar.

In some cultures, the earliest pipe was the “mound pipe,” a small mound of earth with a depression hollowed out on top to hold the tobacco, and hollow reeds protruding through the mound as rudimentary pipe stems. To make use of a mound pipe, the smoker had to lie on the ground on his belly and slip the reed through his lips. These primitive pipes were still being used by Indian soldiers in World War I.

The Indians of South America frequently built communal mound pipes, with as many as 150 people gathering around to share a smoke. When the first reed and clay pipes appeared among the Indian tribes, smoking was still regarded as a communal pastime. Thus arose the custom of passing the pipe around among the group.

Peace PipeEuropeans exploring America in the sixteenth century found some Indians smoking a kind of tube pipe shaped like the letter “Y”, the smoker inserted the two upper prongs of the pipe into his nostrils and aimed the lower tube at a mound of burning leaves. Archaeologists in Africa have found tube pipes made of clay or reed measuring up to six feet long.

Indians of the Central United States carved stone pipes with either straight or curved stems. They smoked a blend they called kinnikinnik, made of tobacco, sumac leaves, and the bark of the willow tree. The Indians, who considered tobacco a sacred herb and regarded smoking as a sacred art, frequently shaped their pipe bowls in the form of animals and other totems. Historians have been unable to explain why some pipes found in the ruins of ancient Indian settlements were carved in the form of elephants and sea cows, two creatures the Indians had presumably never seen.

The calumet, or peace pipe, was usually a long, slender pipe with a wooden stem and a shorter stone end-piece containing the bowl. The calumet was considered a token of peace and friendship, and pioneers exploring the American West often took along calumets in the event they ran into hostile Indians. No instance has ever been recorded of an Indian violating the peace-pipe compact.

Incidentally, the word tobacco comes from the Indian word for the tube of the calumet, not from their name for the plant. When East Coast Indians introduced smoking to the Europeans, they presented their pipe and repeated the word tobacco to urge the stranger to put the calumet tube in his lips. The Europeans naturally assumed the Indians were referring to the substance they were smoking, and the leaf was forever after known as tobacco.