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Chewing Tobacco // Pipes and Snuff for Women >> Coffin Nails Homepage & Introduction

American colonists adopted the practice of chewing (and smoking) tobacco from American Indians.  It became widespread in the early-nineteenth century, provoking Charles Dickens, the well-known English novelist, to complain about tobacco spitting in American Notes (chapter eight), a commentary on his 1842 tour of the United States.  The author ridiculed Washington, D.C., as “the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” and observed that the “most offensive and sickening” practice of tobacco spitting was visible in “all the public places of America…”  Signs in hospitals and other public buildings implored chewers to use spittoons, rather than the floors or marble columns.  In some parts of the country, the filthy “custom is inseparably mixed up with every meal and morning call, and with all the transactions of social life.”

Although challenged by a cigar-smoking craze in the mid-nineteenth century, smokeless tobacco, in the forms of chaw (also called chew or plug) and snuff, remained dominant until perfection of the safety match in the early-twentieth century (since cigars and pipes had to be relit often).  Throughout the nineteenth century, cuspidors or spittoons were common sights in saloons, businesses, civic buildings, and homes.  On the streets, floors of public transports (railroads, boats, and streetcars), and certain other public areas, male chewers expectorated at will, causing a problem for hoopskirt-wearing women, as an 1858 letter to Harper’s Weekly attested.

Along with other tobacco products, Harper’s Weekly advertised chewing tobacco.  To promote P & G. Lorillard’s Century brand, a two-column advertisement in the September 7, 1867 issue announced the daily packing of $100 in the product’s tin foils.  Nearly two years later, in the July 31, 1869 issue, a smaller ad headlined the discontinuation of the marketing tactic on July 1 because Lorillard had “obtained an extensive and wide-spread sale” of its Century chewing tobacco, “its merits being so favorably recognized…”

An article in the April 12, 1873 issue of Harper’s Weekly compared the American practice of chewing tobacco to the Southeast Asian custom of chewing a concoction of ground betel nuts.  The author explicitly identified tobacco chewing as an addiction that was seldom broken, despite the “moral resolution” on the part of users to do so.  He also categorized it as “a practice that is positively destroying the foundations of health” and leading to early death (describing symptoms akin to a stroke).

One reason for the decline in the popularity of chewing tobacco was the fear that the spitting the juice was spreading tuberculosis.  In 1986, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared that smokeless tobacco was addictive.  Today, scientific studies have associated smokeless tobacco with cancer of the esophagus, larynx, mouth, and pancreas.  It can also cause gingivitis, dental cavities, and other periodontal diseases.

Harper's Weekly References
1)  January 16, 1858, p. 35, c. 2-3
Lounger letter, tobacco spitting and hoop skirts

2)  September 7, 1867, p. 576, c. 3-4
ad, chewing tobacco

3)  July 31, 1869, p. 495, c. 2
ad, chewing tobacco

4)  April 12, 1873, p. 302, c. 1
news item, “The Betel-Nut,” compares chewing tobacco addiction to use and effect of betel nut

Sources Consulted
Borio, Gene, “The History of Tobacco” History Net,

Dickens, Charles, “Washington:  The Legislature and the President’s House,” chap. 8 in American Notes (1842),

Slade, John, M.D., “Tobacco Epidemic: Historical Lessons,”

“Southern Tobacco in the Civil War,”, based on an article by Orville Vernon Burton and Henry Kammerling in The Confederacy, a Macmillan Information Now Encyclopedia


Other sections found within "Other Tobacco Products":
Chewing Tobacco // Pipes and Snuff for Women >> Coffin Nails Homepage & Introduction





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