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By the mid-nineteenth century, hand-rolled cigarettes had long been popular in continental Europe and the Middle East, and were introduced to British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856).  Among women (as well as men), the Spanish were particularly noted for the habit, and a promotional shot (c. 1850) of “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer” (the stage name of Irish-born Eliza Gilbert) is one of the earliest photographs of anyone holding a cigarette.  Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, centers on a Spanish heroine who works in a cigarette factory, while she smokes and seduces men freely.  First staged in New York City in 1878, it helped reinforce the American image of cigarette smoking as exotically foreign and sinful.  The negative connection between cigarettes and Spain, a Catholic country, probably also played on anti-Catholic prejudice in the United State, a largely Protestant nation at the time.

In the United States, however, cigarettes were uncommon until they began to be mass-produced in the early 1880s.  The only mention of the product in Harper’s Weekly before the Civil War was in relation to the evil Italian character, Count Fosco, in the serialization of Wilkie Collins’s novel, Woman in White, in 1860.   Interestingly, the first (presumably) American reference to cigarettes in the journal was to young women sneaking a smoke behind their mothers’ backs in the humorous poem, “Cigarettes,” in the issue of November 28, 1863.  The male speaker complained about the bad breath of female smokers because “a maiden’s lips should be/ Fit to kiss.”  That some American women had taken up the habit was confirmed by an advertisement 15 years later in the September 7, 1878 issue in which the popular Vanity Fair brand offered monogrammed cigarettes in small size “expressly for ladies.”

Tobacco cigarettes were seldom mentioned in Harper’s Weekly through the 1870s (although there were numerous ads for non-tobacco medicinal cigarettes made from a pepper plant), and thereafter, the slight increase in attention to cigarettes in the United States focused on the mechanics of production and condemnation of boys smoking.  In the newspaper’s pages, cigarette smoking was presented as decidedly foreign, something that European, Arab, and South American men (usually) and women did in fact and fiction.  An item from the “Waifs and Strays” column of the October 4, 1884 issue reported the revelation of a London tobacconist who used to think his female customers were buying cigarettes for their husbands or brothers, but then realized the purchases were for the women themselves.

Anti-tobacco advocates in the United States thought that more American women were also smoking cigarettes in the 1880s and 1890s, and responded by publishing anti-smoking tracts aimed at women.  In 1885, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union reported that several cities had “ladies’ smoking clubs.”  During those decades, increased immigration from southern and eastern Europe, where cigarette smoking by women at home was common, added to the numbers.  But the habit was becoming more common among native middle- and upper-class women, despite press silence, denial, and stigmatization (largely for reasons of morality, not health).  In fact, the public image that women who smoked cigarettes were unconventional and sexually suggestive could be an incentive to start.  Some society women began smoking while touring Europe, mimicking the supposed sophistication and worldliness of continental women.  Others saw cigarette smoking as a statement that they represented the independent-minded “New Woman” of the 1890s.  For anarchist Emma Goldman, it reflected her political, social, and moral radicalism.

An illustration in Harper’s Weekly portrayed an elegant, wealthy, young woman smoking in her parlor in the presence of a man (who also smokes) and another woman.  When published in the September 22, 1894 issue to accompany a serialized novel, “The Master,” by Israel Zangwill, the time had passed when the scene would have been considered shocking to many.  (It is questionable, though, whether a similar picture would have been published before the death in 1892 of editor George William Curtis, an anti-tobacco reformer.)  Importantly, the female character was English and the setting was London.  The next year, in the May 4, 1895 issue, William Dean Howells, the writer of the “Life and Letters” column, insisted that while the “New Women” in English novels smoked cigarettes, the same was not true of her American cousins.

In reality, however, at least one hotel in New York City during the 1890s had opened a smoking room for women to accommodate the practice common among its upper-crust patrons.  The idea of women smoking in public, though, was still offensive to many men and women.  In 1908, the New York City Board of Aldermen outlawed women smoking in public, although Mayor George McClellan Jr. vetoed the ordinance.  Other communities enacted similar regulations, but social stigma continued to be the biggest force against women taking up the habit.

Nevertheless, by the early 1910s, there were enough female smokers for small tobacco manufacturers to target them with brands with feminine-sounding names like Milo Violets and Rose Tips.  In 1911, Harper’s Weekly published two cartoons indicating that the realization that American women were smoking was becoming more widespread and publicly acknowledged.  In the January 7 issue, an illustration presented two wealthy women asking a porter for the train’s smoking car, to which he casually directs them.  In the June 10 issue, a cartoon showed a little boy smoking, prompting his horrified aunt to ask disapprovingly what his mother would think.  “She’d have a fit,” he responded, “They’re her cigarettes.”  The federal government’s report on the fiscal year 1917 concluded that the 15% increase in tobacco sales over the previous year was due largely to more women smoking.

After America’s entry into World War I in 1917, two previous trends grew:  the number of women smoking and organized opposition to them.  Sales of cigarettes quadrupled in the United States between 1918 and 1928, and it was commonly believed that women accounted for a considerable segment of the increase.  Smaller manufacturers came out with more brands and smoking-related items (e.g., cigarette cases and holders) marketed exclusively to women.  However, as historians Cassandra Tate and Michael Schudson point out, it was not cigarette advertising that solely enticed women to start smoking.  They were already smoking in substantial numbers (though still a minority) before the first ads and brands for women from major companies appeared in the late 1920s.  Instead, several causes were responsible for the phenomenon, including milder tobacco, greater freedom from parental supervision (particularly with more women in colleges than ever before), and higher wages for working women.  No doubt, advertising aimed at women did make the practice more socially acceptable, as did movies, which, for decades beginning in the 1920s, glamorized smoking by women and men.  By 1949, about a third of American women and about half of American men smoked cigarettes.

It was not until the 1930s through the 1950s that medical studies were first made that indicated scientifically the dangers of tobacco, particularly cigarette smoking.  In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office released a report stating that smoking caused cancer in men, and probably did in women.  Further research substantiated that women smokers also faced a grave risk of cancer and other serious health problems.  The Surgeon General’s reports in 1980 and 2001 dealt specifically with the health risks of smoking on females.  In the 2001 report, Surgeon General David Satcher warned, “Women not only share the same health risk as men, but are also faced with health consequences that are unique to women, including pregnancy complications, problems with menstrual function, and cervical cancer.”  In 1987, lung cancer (overwhelmingly attributed to smoking) surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among American women.  Although the number of adult women smokers has recently leveled off (22% of women in 1998), the number of teenage girls smoking has increased (in 2000, 30% of female high school seniors reported smoking within the previous month).  The good news is that the 2001 study confirmed that stopping the cigarette habit contributes to better health.

Harper's Weekly References
1)  November 28, 1863, p. 766, c. 1
verse, “Cigarettes,” about young women smoking

2)  September 7, 1878, p. 720, c. 4
ad, small size of Vanity Fair cigarettes exclusively for women

3)  October 4, 1884, p. 657, c. 3-4
item in the “Waifs and Strays” column, British women buying cigarettes for themselves

4)  September 22, 1894, p. 893
literary illustration, elegant society woman smoking at home in the presence of a man and another woman, from “The Master,” by I. Zangwill

5)  May 4, 1895, p. 417, c. 1-2
from “Life and Letters” column, discussion of English novels and the New Woman who smokes cigarettes, denies that is true for American women

6)  January 7, 1911, p. 19, c. 1-2
illustration, two women ask for the smoking car

7)  June 10, 1911, p. 26
cartoon, boy smoking his mother’s cigarettes

Sources Consulted
Butler, Mary Ellen, “Women Face Unique Risks From Smoking Says Surgeon General's Report,” US Medicine:  The Voice of Federal Medicine,

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

“Women and Smoking:  A Report of the Surgeon General—2001,” Center for Disease Control,


Other sections found within "Cigarettes":
Men // Women >> Coffin Nails Homepage & Introduction





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