Elizabethan Smoking


by Alfred H. Dunhill Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 54-10495


Opinion is still divided about which of the sea captains or colonists in the time of Hawkins and Drake was the first to introduce the plant into the country, and we can be sure only that smoking slowly established itself in England between 1565 and 1590. From the first, however, Englishmen seem to have been more concerned with the pleasures offered by tobacco than with its medical virtues. No doubt the English sailors were the first to become acquainted with cigar and pipe smoking from their rivals in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Flemish ships; some soldiers may have collected tobacco pipes from the Huguenots with whom they fought in France. Smoking was doubtless a familiar practice in the ports of England before the frequently quoted incident of Drake's return from Virginia with a number of colonists in 1586. These men brought with them pipes, tobacco seeds, and plants, and their example of what was at first called "drinking" tobacco smoke (inhaling and apparently swallowing it) is known to have caused considerable excitement and interest. From that time, at any rate, smoking developed from the private pleasure of a few "tobacconists"--as the first smokers were called--into a social practice.

A tremendous impetus was doubtless given to the habit by the influence and patronage of so distin guished a man as Sir Walter Raleigh. Every school boy knows the story of the servant who found Raleigh smoking and who, thinking that his master was on fire, drenched him with beer. Many fabulous stories have attached themselves to the name of Raleigh, who has ahnost been regarded as the patron saint of smoking; though most of these are probably fictitious, and Raleigh was certainly not the first to introduce the plant, he perfected a method of curing the leaf and helped to popularize smoking among the courtiers of his day. But smoking was an expensive pleasure; the poor took to it very slowly. Some seventy years later Aubrey wrote in his comments on Raleigh: "It [tobacco] was sold then for its weight in Silver. I have heard some of our old yeomen neighbouts say that when they went to Malmesbury or Chippenham market, they culled out their biggest shillings to lay in the Scales against the Tobacco." And so, while the Elizabethan dandies with their starched ruffs, gilthandled swords, and velvet breeches took boxes of silver pipes to the theater, clay pipes were passed from hand to hand in the so-called "tabagies"--meeting places resembling ordinary taverns. And the poor man had to content himself with a pipe made from a walnut shell and a straw stem.

The contemporary writer Dekker employs the term "artillery" to describe the elaborate smoking paraphernalia of these fashionable dandies who, especially at the Elizabethan theater, earned themselves the title of "reeking gallants." Such a "tobacconist" might carry a set of Winchester clays (or those ornamented with silver and gold), an ivory or metal box which contained up to a pound of tobacco, silver tongs for lifting the glowing ember to light his pipe, a pick, a knife to shred the tobacco, and a small scoop for drying the leaf. With such equipment a gallant might sit on a stool at the side of the stage and, "clowding the loathing ayr with foggie fume," as one observer put it, embarrass the actors with his audible criticism. Serving boys supplied lights which were passed from one gallant to another on the point of a sword. It is therefore not surprising that a citizen's wife in a contemporary play should remark, "This stinking tobacco kills men. Would there were none in England."

In order to share his pleasure with different company the gallant might direct his steps to St. Paul's-the fashionable resort and meeting place of sporting men and swaggcrers. There, it was said, a man could "spit private" and the uninitiated could receive instruction in the solemn ritual of smoking. He could learn to display the fashionable tricks such as "The Ring," "The Whiffe," "The Gulp," and "The Retention"--always "putting the fume through his nose"--and the bizarre fads which would establish him among the "reeking gallants" as an accomplished smoker. From St. Paul's the "tobacconist" might wander to a "tobacco ordinary," or to the shop of a tobacco-seller--a trade rated almost as low as that of usury--or, turning into the Mermaid Tavern, he might watch the famous writers of the day smoking their pipes with rather less fuss and excitement. Meanwhile Dekker, Marston, Chapman, and many others were writing their lampoons on the subject, which was already arousing criticism from moralists and clergy. It is therefore simple to imagine the amusement of an audience which heard the water-carrier in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour make the following observation about "roguish tobacco":

It's good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers: there were four died out of one house, last week, with taking of it, and two more the bell went for, yesternight: one of them, they say, will ne'er scape it; hc voided a bushel of soot yesterday, upward and downward. By the stocks, and there were no wiser men than I, I'd have it present whipping, man, or woman, that should but deal with a tobacco pipe: why, it will stifle them all in the end, as many as use it: it's little better than ratsbane [white arsenic] ....

Yet, in spite of satire that was bound to make sport of a habit which was taking society by storm, by 16oo smoking ranked in the life of a fashionable man with dancing, riding, hunting, and card playing. It is therefore surprising that there is no direct reference to it in the plays of Shakespeare. He may of course have considered that the subject was already threadbare, or he may have wished to remain persona grata at Court, For at the turn of the seventeenth century King James I became the center of the opposition to tobacco which did its utmost to stamp out the "Indian vice."


Some pamphleteers insisted that smoking caused sterility, and innumerable diseases. Others, supporting the medical virtues of tobacco, thought it illogical to use the weed for pleasure. Indignation at the extravagant smoking habits of the gallants found fulfillment in the famous Counterblast to Tobacco published by James I in 16o4. This, reflecting much of the King's narrow-mindedness, proclaimed that the habit had been acquired from barbarous people, that "smoking gallants" were a social menace, that doctors regarded the habit as dirty and injurious to health, and that to foster the tobacco trade meant playing into the hands of Spanish enemies. The treatise concludes by stating that smoking is "a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the braine, daungerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse."

In spite of this denunciation from the throne and a subsequent increase in the duty on tobacco (which inevitably encouraged bootlegging, smuggling, and the cultivation of the plant on English soil), the popularity of smoking continued. The consumption of tobacco from Virginia rose to astonishing heights. Whereas before 1616 the indifferent plant (Nicotiana rustica) of the English colonies offered little competition to the popular Spanish leaf (Nicotiana tabacum) which was grown in the West Indies, Mexico, and the north of South America, the English colonists, by taking the Spanish plant from Trinidad and planting it in Virginia, began to trade in earnest. Indeed, it was largely due to this fact that England kept its hold on North America. In 1616 the first successful shipload of the New Virginjan tobacco was sent across the Atlantic. When the colonists asked for women to be sent out to them, their traveling expenses were paid for with tobacco. In 162o forty thousand pounds of leaf were sent to England, where a guild of pipemakers had been formed, and the increased duties provided a new and immense revenue for the King, who had tried to bring this trade to an end. In order to encourage the colonists, even home-grown tobacco, which was making progress around Gloucester and Worcester, was officially prohibited. No wonder that the antiquary Camden, writing in 1625, remarked: "Tobacco shops are set up in greater numbers than either Alehouses or Tavernes."

  • Gene Borio, the Tobacco BBS (212-982-4645. WebPage: http://www.tobacco.org.)

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