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

From the colonial period through the early decades of the nineteenth century, tobacco use among American women, usually in the form of snuff or pipe smoking, was not uncommon.  Instances of women smoking in their homes or on their doorsteps were routinely recorded in the court proceedings of colonial New England.  One observer of the colonial scene remarked that American women “smoke in bed, smoke as they knead their bread, smoke whilst they’re cooking.”  In 1686, a French traveler noted women in Maryland and Virginia smoked in public, even in church.  The tobacco habit among women was still pervasive in the early-nineteenth century.  A Quaker traveling in western New York State in 1826 complained about the “tobacco plague” among women, who “sit smoking their pipes by the half dozen without the least attempt to conceal it, or the least apparent sense of its indelicacy.”

With the tobacco crop centered in the South, some evidence suggests that Southern women continued using the product after the practice had waned among women in the North.  Three First Ladies from the South used tobacco:  Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison (1809-1817), preferred snuff, but sometimes smoked a pipe, while Rachel Jackson, wife of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), and Margaret Taylor, wife of President Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), were frequent pipe smokers.

In the October 29, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly, the author of an illustrated article on Civil War refugees from Virginia observed critically, “All the women smoked, and common clay pipes were to be seen sticking out of lips far too pretty for such occupation.”  Since the habit was no longer common in the North, he assured his readers that the corresponding illustration of pipe-smoking women was not “a matter of fancy.”  The same phenomenon appeared decades later in an illustration for a short story in the January 29, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  Set in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, an image for “Jack and the Mountain Pink,” written by Katherine McDowell (under the pseudonym, Sherwood Bonner), depicted an old woman of rural Appalachia casually smoking a pipe on her doorstep.

Certainly by the late 1860s, pipe smoking among the middle and upper classes in the North had become associated with men.  A cartoon from the February 23, 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly presented two sisters who became ill after smoking their brother’s pipe tobacco.  The practice of pipe smoking continued, however, among working class and immigrant women in the urban North.  An item in the “Home and Foreign Gossip” column of the June 14, 1873 issue remarked on elderly female street vendors who insisted on smoking their pipes in the new smoking cars of the Third Avenue train.  A few months later, in the September 27 issue, a cartoon addresses the same topic.  In “A New Era in City Travel,” a poor Irish-American laundress expressed gratitude for the smoking cars, while the clothes of her upper-class clients absorbed the bad odor from the pipe she smoked.

Taking snuff (inhaling powered tobacco through the nostrils) had been popular with women and men in the eighteenth century, but waned in usage by both sexes throughout the nineteenth.  That there were still some women who took snuff as late as the third quarter of the century, though, is suggested by two humorous poems in Harper’s Weekly The first verse, from 1859, explained why the male speaker was giving up his disgusting tobacco habit.  Near the end, he told lady “snuffers” to look elsewhere “for your fellow-puffers.”  In the second, from the September 28, 1867 issue, a woman gave six reasons for using snuff.  Identified as “Mrs. H. More,” she was probably Hannah More (1745-1833), the late English essayist, but the inclusion of the light verse hinted that the subject of women snuff-users was still of some relevance.

Harper's Weekly References
1)  October 29, 1864, p. 700-701, c. 4
“Refugees at City Point,” pipe smoking among Civil War refugees from Virginia, illustration on p. 701

2)  January 29, 1881, p. 76, c. 1-2
literary illustration, rural (Cumberland Mt.) woman smoking a pipe on her doorstep, “Jack and the Mountain Pink,” by Sherwood Bonner (nom de plume of Katherine McDowell)

3)  February 23, 1867, p. 128, c. 1-3
cartoon, “A Quiet Smoke,” sisters are sick after smoking their brother’s pipe tobacco

4)  June 14, 1873, p. 503, c. 1
item in “Home and Foreign Gossip” column, pipe smoking female food vendors

5)  September 27, 1873, p. S864, c. 3-4
cartoon, “A New Era in City Travel,” Irish-American laundress in smoking car of city train

6)  July 9, 1859, p. 443, c. 3
verse, “Tobacco and I,” refers to women using snuff

7)  September 28, 1867, p. 619, c. 3
verse, “You Say Six Reasons Are Enough,” women gives six reasons hwy she uses snuff

Sources Consulted
Tate, Cassandra, Cigarette Wars:  The Triumph of the Little White Slaver (NY:  Oxford UP, 1999)

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





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