Monday, November 1, 2010

Global Spread of Tobacco in Europe in 16-17 Centuries

Tobacco, that outlandish weed
It spends the brain, and spoiles the seede
It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight
It robs a woman of her right.
-Dr. William Vaughn, 1617

Tobacco got a boost in Europe for it reputed medicinal properties, as touted by Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal from whom the genus Nicotiana takes its name. Nicot had heard stories of tobacco’s curative power and sent seeds to Catherine de’ Medici. Though most known as an appetite suppressant, physicians went so far as to prescribe smoking to prevent the plague. Meanwhile, a pamphlet entitled Joyful News of our Newe Founde Worlde sang the praises of tobacco while being “careful to refute…the charge that tobacco was the Devil’s herb.” The Spanish doctor Nicolas Monardes enthusiastic publication “provoked a wave of interest in tobacco across Europe… [as the] pamphlet was translated into Latin, English, French, and Italian.

Smoking for pleasure, however, received its greatest endorsement from Sir Walter Raleigh, who was “a favorite of the queen of England… [and] something of a trendsetter in the fashion-conscious circles of Elizabethan London”.  


In spite of the historic tales, Sir Walter Raleigh may not have been the first to introduce tobacco in England. Some historians claim that one John Hawkins brought back the leaf in 1565 after a voyage to Florida. In any case, we know that Sir Walter had a large hand in popularizing tobacco smoking in Europe.


Raleigh sent Sir Francis Drake on an expedition to colonize Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1585. When the expedition failed, Drake returned to Europe. He brought some tobacco and smoking implements to Sir Walter, who soon became the most notorious smoker in Renaissance England. According to one story, Raleigh lit a pipe before Queen Elizabeth and was promptly rewarded with a dousing by a member of the court who thought Sir Walter was on fire. A die-hard smoker indeed, Raleigh even “tooke a pipe of tobacco a little before he went to the scaffolde.”

As the opening speech of Moliere's Don Juan explained:
. . . there is nothing like tobacco. It's the passion of the virtuous man and whoever lives without tobacco isn't worthy of living. Not only does it purge the human brain, but it also instructs the soul in virtue and one learns from it how to be a virtuous man. Haven't you noticed how well one treats another after taking it. . . tobacco inspires feelings, honor and virtue in all those who take it.

By 1600, the “dry drink” was fashionable in much of Europe. Many pipe smokers of the time carried hand-carved tobacco rammers, used to press the shredded leaf into the pipe bowl. Some of the more ornate rammers doubled as large finger rings. Smokers also had to carry ember tongs to hold the burning embers of juniper wood used to light their pipes.


Cigarettes were little known at the time. Conquistadors bring tobacco back to Spain as a luxury for the wealthy. But when Seville beggars begin to pick up discarded cigar butts, shred them and roll them in scraps of paper for smoking, they become known as cigarrillos, meaning little cigars.

The popularity of tobacco in England prompted the English colonial tobacco industry, which was boosted by John Rolfe’s move in Jamestown to acquire the finer Nicotiana tobaccum (to replace the more bitter rustica), allowing the first shipment of tobacco to England by 1613.

The English developed a preference for the pipe, based on their interactions with North American Indians, while the Spanish preferred the cigar, a closer relative to the smoking encountered on their exploration in the New World. Snuff was popular in the French court (though the Spanish clergy also admired the discreetness of snuff) and it soon spread into the country as tobacco prices came down—again, also thanks to big tobacco ventures in the New World.

For England, in particular, having a colony meant an independent tobacco supply. Like England’s tea enterprises in China and India, having an independent tobacco supply in America was an undeniably strong argument for a country with a habit. Americans themselves developed a strong preference for chewing tobacco—a habit disdained by Continental visitors, but one that remained popular into the nineteenth century.

Seventeenth-century doctors prescribed tobacco as a cure-all, fashioning the leaf into pills, plasters, poultices, oils, salts, tinctures, and balms. During the London plague of the 1660s, many people smoked tobacco as a preventive. Even in the later part of the century, doctors continued to prescribe the leaf for such disparate ailments as hiccoughs, imbecility, jaundice, corpulence, syphilis, and “general lousiness,”, for everything except a bad cough.

Some physicians even recommended a tobacco-smoke enema for various ailments. The enema, administered with a device known as the Clyster pipe, was said by one doctor to be “excellent good against colic.” And James I of England proclaimed that the Clyster pipe was the only way to take one’s tobacco. Well, different smokes for different folks.


It’s odd that James would comment favorably on tobacco, in any form or guise, since the monarch had always been a bitter foe of the leaf. In his Counterblast to Tobacco, James described smoking as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” And you thought the Surgeon General was harsh on tobacco!

Soon, tobacco smoking popularity has spread to the Eastern Europe as well. Peter I became passionate smoker during his visit to England, before him in Russia people were whipped because of smoking and banished to Siberia. Snuff tobacco powder was widespread also, expensive snuff-boxes appeared. Were used long narrow smoking pipes and most people begun to collect them.


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