History of Tobacco

“The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish,” wrote W.M. Thackeray a hundred years ago; and to this day, pipe smoking retains a certain connotation of sophistication. The hoi polloi may take their tobacco by cigarette or cigar, but a true connoisseur of the brown leaf wouldn’t think of any means of fumigation aside from the pipe. Perhaps the veneration of pipe smoking stems partly from its long popularity, for centuries in Europe, the pipe was virtually the only means of tobacco smoking.
The common myth about the introduction of tobacco in Europe credits Sir Walter Raleigh with bringing the leaf from Virginia to England in the late sixteenth century. True, Raleigh’s tobacco created an immediate sensation at the court of Elizabeth I, but tobacco smoking actually first came to Europe by quite another means, involving neither the English nor the North American Indian.

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 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 Surgeon General was 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.”

American cigarette manufacture dates from the Civil War, when Greek and Turkish tobacconists in New York City began hand-rolling expensive imported tobaccos. By that time, the cigarette, from the Spanish cigarito, was already the favored tobacco product in some parts of Europe. It wasn’t until the 1880’s, when natural leaf cigarettes made from domestic tobaccos began to dominate the market and machine-rolled butts first replaced the hand-rolled varieties that cigarettes became affordable by all. Yet cigars and pipes remained more popular until 1920. By the 1950’s, cigarettes accounted for over 80 percent of all American tobacco consumption.

In the early days of cigarette manufacture, a factory worker could hand-roll about 18,000 cigarettes per week. Crude machines for cigarette-rolling began to appear in the mid-1870’s. In the following decade, the machines replaced hand-rollers almost completely, with one machine doing the job of fifty workers. A modern machine can turn out about 1,500 cigarettes per minute, or 36,000 packs in an eight-hour day.

In 1880, American cigarette production stood at a mere half billion. By 1895, the figure had soared to 4 billion. A large increase following World War I pushed the figure up to 124 billion. Another big rise after World War II brought the total to 400 billion. In 1975, cancer not withstanding, American cigarette consumption passed the 600-billion mark for the first time.

Has the increased awareness of the dangers of tobacco smoking lowered cigarette use to any great extent? In 1964, the year of the Surgeon General’s first warning regarding smoking, 52 percent of all men of presumed smoking age were regular smokers; by 1976, the figure stood at only 32 percent. But smoking among women showed an increase over the same period, and total consumption has risen since 1971. By 1975, there were an estimated 30 million former-smokers among the ranks of the non-smokers, with some 50 million persons still clinging to the habit.

Despite the Surgeon General’s warning, repeated on every pack of American cigarettes, the United States still leads the world in per capita cigarette smoking. In 1973, the average American fifteen years of age or older smoked 3,812 cigarettes, that’s about a half pack daily for each person, and well over a pack for each smoker. Japan is close behind with 3,270 cigarettes per capita annually, the United Kingdom third with 3,190, and Italy fourth with 2,774. West Germany, Denmark, and Sweden round out the top seven.

Cigarettes today are sold in three basic sizes, regular non-filter, regular filter, and 100-mm. king size, but in the past, butts have been sold in a wide range of sizes. In the 1930’s, when cigarettes were taxed individually in some places, to save tax, one manufacturer brought out “Head Plays,” each cigarette eleven inches long.

“Lilliput” cigarettes only one-and-a-quarter inches long appeared in England in the 1950’s. And “English Ovals” are just that, oval in shape instead of round.

Philip Morris’s Marlboro remains the most popular cigarette on earth, the 136 billion sold annually making the entire world “Marlboro Country.”

Long 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.

Europeans 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.

The water pipe, a popular means of smoking in the Near East for centuries, was probably invented by the Persians for smoking hashish. The earliest water pipes were called nargeelehs, from the Arabic word for coconut, since the coconut was used as the base for the first hydro-cooled fumigators. Later, the Arabs fashioned more elaborate pipes from glass crystal.

The hookah is a kind of water pipe with a number of flexible stems, called narbeeshes, each from six to thirty inches long. British officers in India often employed servants called burdars, whose sole duty was to attend to their master’s hookah.

In a water pipe, smoke is drawn from the bowl into the base, where it is cooled by water vapor and then drawn through the stem. Some Persian men were so partial to the taste of smoke-flavored water that they regularly forced their wives to smoke four or five bowlfuls of tobacco or hashish in succession to produce a well-flavored drink.

The earliest pipes popular in Europe were made from clay. Clay pipes with small bowls were favored in England, the story goes, because in the first days of tobacco smoking the Englishman’s desire for the leaf far outpaced the supply; to indulge frequently, then, the Englishman had to content himself with a small pinch at each light-up.

The clay pipe had the distinct disadvantage of heating up rapidly, which might also explain why its bowl was so small. The French, true to form, developed clay-pipe making to a fine art, molding their pipe bowls to depict religious, military, and domestic scenes.

There were two basic types of clay pipe popular in seventeenth-century England, the cutty and the churchwarden. The small cutty, equipped with a stem of about three inches, was the more popular among the general populace, selling for as little as three for a penny. But the cutty stem was often so short that a pipe took on the nickname of “nose warmer.”

The churchwarden was fitted with a stem of some eight to ten inches, and a more decorated bowl. As a rule, the wealthy opted for the churchwarden, and frequently bought elegant cases in which to carry their prize pipes. When the lower classes began smoking churchwardens to emulate the rich, the case was still beyond their means, so many an Englishman took to carrying his long pipe in a hole cut through his hat brim.

Washington Irving, in his History of New York, presents a tongue-in-cheek account of Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam who were ardent smokers of the long pipe until their leader, William the Testy, proclaimed smoking illegal. The furious populace refused to obey the edict, so William compromised by permitting smoking only from short-stemmed pipes. But the short pipes brought the bowl so close to the smoker’s face that the fumes “befogged the cerebellum, dried up all the kindly moisture of the brain and rendered the people, as vaporish and testy as the governor himself.”

The clay pipe is now but a curiosity piece. Only a handful of clay-pipe artisans remain to satisfy the smoker with a taste for the unusual.

Today, there are basically five kinds of pipe popular throughout the world. Many Alpine people prefer the porcelain pipe, usually fitted with a long, curving stem and two bowls, one for the tobacco and one for the residue of juices. Other smokers prefer cherry wood pipes. The most popular varieties by far are the meerschaum, briar, and corncob.

Meerschaum is a magnesium silicate compound mined extensively in Asia Minor. The Germans thought the substance in its raw form resembled petrified sea foam, and dubbed it meerschaum, literally, “sea foam.” Turkish craftsmen today still carve meerschaum pipe bowls by hand, favoring busts of Cleopatra, Bacchus, and other gods and notables.

The briar pipe owes its existence to a French smoker who journeyed to Corsica in the 1820’s. Arriving on the island and discovering that his prized meerschaum pipe had been shattered in transit, the Frenchman asked a local artisan to carve a new pipe from the wood of the bruyere, or heath tree, which grows extensively on the island. The smoker was so delighted by the finished product that he sent heath wood and roots to France and began manufacturing the bruyere, or briar pipe. Today, the briar pipe is the most popular pipe in the world.

The corncob is an American invention. John Schranke, a Dutch immigrant farmer living in Washington, Missouri, first whittled pipes from corncobs as a hobby. In 1869, Schranke brought one of his creations to the shop of a friend, Henry Tibbe. Tibbe improved the pipe by filling in the uneven surfaces with plaster of paris, and then he began to market the pipes. A hundred years later, corncob pipe production stood at around 10 million per year. The president of the largest corncob pipe manufacturer in the world still uses Tibbe’s workshop as his headquarters.

Corncob pipes have the overwhelming advantage of being dirt cheap. At the other end of the scale, the most expensive pipe in the world is the Charatan Summa Cum Laude, a straight-grain briar-root pipe that sells in the vicinity of $2,5001. But even such an expensive pipe won’t guarantee a perfect smoke. To some tobacco connoisseurs, there’s only one kind of pipe you can count on.