Bad Habits in America

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Bad Habits in America

In the early twentieth century, using tobacco was one of the minor vices. Chewing and smoking tobacco were generally viewed as part of a larger group of social practices, along with drinking, gambling, sexual misbehavior, and other bad habits that were rebellious and naughty, but on some level attractive. Over time, popular attitudes about tobacco use have evolved and become more complex.

Beginnings as a Stereotypical Behavior

In sixteenth-century Europe, tobacco was used primarily as a medicine, later metamorphosing into a recreational drug in which rituals of use became more important than the substance itself. With increasing use came criticism of tobacco, but the moral condemnation of snuff, cigars, pipes, and chews focused primarily on the social impact of tobacco use (the mess, fumes, and spit) rather than alleged health effects.

Nevertheless, before 1950, tobacco producers and marketers were not aware that their industry was perceived as antisocial. Indeed, they were proud of their business and its tradition, and they viewed themselves as benign figures in their communities. At the same time, antitobacco efforts and laws regulating the sale of tobacco products were aimed primarily at underage consumers, typically "bad boys," rather than adult smokers.

During the nineteenth century, tobacco had different connotations for different users. For example, "respectable" women did not smoke or chew while men did. Male cigar and pipe smoking was both respectable and middle class, but tobacco use by marginal men could take on rebellious connotations. Ruffians and toughs, attempting to be supermasculine, used tobacco as part of their public image. Thus, the pleasurable act of smoking took on an element of rebellious defiance, especially in the presence of ladies or upper-class nonindulgers.

In the nineteenth century, tobacco use often occurred in disreputable, or at least questionable, public spaces; no saloon, gambling place, or bordello would have been without the use of tobacco. This association with the Victorian era underworld of saloons, red light districts, gambling, and brutal games was publicly resisted by tobacco manufacturers and retailers. As late as 1919, the Independent Retail Tobacconists organization resolved, "We are doing all we can to show that the tobacco industry is a legitimate occupation and is not conducted by thugs, gamblers or men who are not good members of society."

Taking on a Special Relationship to Vice

In the decades before World War I and with the introduction of the cigarette, tobacco use came to be further associated with the unrespectable minor vices. The first clear sign of this was the sizable social fuss about boys, always naughty boys, who used tobacco.◆ The cigarette-smoking boy of the late nineteenth century represented defiance of social norms based on common wisdom that smoking was bad for children. Cigarette-smoking boys were more likely to swear and be otherwise mischievous and disrespectful. Additionally, soft pornographic images typically showed a partially clad woman smoking a cigarette. Another marginal user of cigarettes was the dubious bohemian. Respectable men generally used cigars and pipes, but not cigarettes.

See "Youth Tobacco Use" for a 1906 photograph of boys smoking cigars.

As new technology allowed for the mass production of cigarettes at a marginal cost, they came into much wider use, and as a result, cigarettes came to be identified with the lower social classes. Cigarettes were frequently sold individually, making them affordable to just about everyone, while pipes and cigars remained out of financial reach for the poor. Moreover, in the attempt to market the large output of cigarettes, tobacco makers offered premiums, particularly illustrated cards that came with each package of cigarettes. Often these cards carried pictures of "actresses" who were scantily clad. James B. Duke of the American Tobacco Company shocked his father, who had founded the company, with the offensive cards his company was using. But the tactic foreshadowed the way in which cigarette advertising would evolve to tie tobacco more firmly to drinking, gambling, and sexual naughtiness.

During World War I increased use of cigarettes further enhanced their image as a cheap thrill. In the war trenches, both British and American troops took to the quick, convenient smoke one could get with a cigarette. Soldiers received free smokes, or they pooled their money to buy a plentiful supply to enjoy in the rough atmosphere of the barracks.

Another development of this period was that smoking was identified as part of the new cabaret ideal being introduced from continental Europe. The old male-oriented saloon was already, before Prohibition, giving way in big cities to a new public space for drinking and casual mixing of the sexes. The cigarette advertisers saw their chance to upgrade the cigarette to appeal to people of a higher social class who might patronize cabarets.

Associations in a Consumer Culture

In the 1920s, the main taboo to be broken was that women—specifically middle-class women—did not smoke. At first, cigarette ads that depicted fashionable women in the act of smoking shocked people, but through movies and advertising smoking among both men and women began to take on a more glamorous image. Movies and other media of the 1920s and 1930s pictured high-status people smoking and drinking in cabarets or aboard luxurious gambling ships that sailed out of Los Angeles and other cities. Advertisers used conventions about gender roles in their advertisements to persuade women to adopt what had been primarily a male behavior. A witness at the time described what he saw: "First the woman appears in the advertisement—merely a pretty girl who becomes part of the pictures; then she is offering the man a fag; next she asks him to blow the smoke her way; finally she lights hers by his."

While smoking occurred as part of a pattern of vices and bad behaviors, it was viewed in a manner different from the use of alcohol or narcotics. More important, although smoking could be habit forming, it did not cause people to lose control of their senses. Thus, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, cigarette smoking, when compared with excessive alcohol use, which frequently led to car accidents and bar brawls, appeared relatively harmless. In the late twentieth century, social scientists as well as popular opinion and the media tied smoking not only to rebelliousness, but specifically to illegal drug use and other addictive and ritualistic social transgressions.

See Also Advertising; Class; Film; Visual Arts; Youth Tobacco Use.



Burnham, John C. Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.

fag (archaic) a slang term for a hand-rolled cigarette.