Weird Historical Facts About Tobacco & Smoking

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Would it surprise you to know that smoking was referred to as a “noble art” by many in Europe? That you could gain status through your skill at smoking tricks? Or that doing snuff could get you executed? This article, “Curiosities of Smoking,” appeared in the third volume of the Home Chimes journal, published in 1885. It was written by H. Barton Baker, and contains many fascinating historical facts about one of humankind’s strangest habits. (All text is directly from the article – the headings for each section were added by me.)

An Early Account of Tobacco Use Among Mexicans by Christopher Columbus:

Fifty years after Columbus landed at San Salvador, Girolamo Benzoni, in his History of the New World, writing of the Mexicans, says: “When the tobacco leaves were in season they picked them, tied them in bunches, and dried them near the fire. Then they took maize leaves, rolled them full of tobacco, and lighted them at one end, putting the other in their mouths. They drew the smoke up into their throats and heads, finding a pleasure in retaining the smoke until they lost their reason. Some would take so much of it that they would fall down as if dead, remaining many hours insensible. Wise men only inhaled enough of the smoke to make themselves giddy.”

Virginia Tobacco Introduced in England:

Tobacco had been cultivated by the Spaniards in Cuba, and by the Portuguese in Brazil, when Jean Nicot, who was destined to give his name to the plant, being on a mission in Portugal about the year 1560, sent seeds to Catherine de Medicis, from whom it took the name of “Herbe de la Seine,” by which it was long known in France. In 1584 Raleigh’s agents discovered Virginia, and introduced the Virginian weed into this country, where it soon became the fashion, though not without bitter opposition.

history-smoking-tobacco-strangetrek-comSmoking as a “Fine Art” in Europe; The Importance of Smoke Rings and Other Tricks:

The plays of the Elizabethan dramatists, especially those of Ben Jonson, abound in allusions to tobacco and the fantastic usages of the smokers. Smoking at that period was regarded as a fine art, and teachers were engaged to impart its elegancies. Shift, in Every Man out of his Humour, undertakes to instruct young gentlemen in the most gentlemanlike use of tobacco; as first to give it the most exquisite perfume; then to know all the delicate, sweet forms for the assumption of it; as also the rare corollary and practice of the Cuban ebolition*, euripus*, and whiff, which he shall receive, or take in here at London, and evaporate at Oxbridge, or farther, if it please him.” The Gull’s Hornbook says: “Then let him shewe his several tricks in taking the whiffe, the ring, etc., for these are compli ments that gain gentlemen no mean respect; and for which indeed they are more worthily noticed than for any skill they have in learning.” [* ed. note: see next section for defintions]

Smoking Tricks and Methods Defined; The Tobacco Shops that Specialized in the “Noble Art”:

The Cuban, or Gulan, ebolitio was a mode of forcibly and rapidly ejecting the smoke; the euripus – a word supposed to have been suggested by the strait so called that lies between the island of Cuba and the Continent, proverbial for the flux and reflux of the tide – indicated an inhalation and emission of the smoke in rapid succession; the whiff was the act of holding the smoke in the mouth, and breathing and speaking without emitting it; the ring is a trick still frequently practised by smokers. The shops of tobacconists, or druggists, as they were called, not only supplied the tobacco, but all the conveniencies for drinking it, as the phrase went. Every well frequented shop was an academy of “the noble art,” where professors regularly attended to initiate the country aspirants. Abel Drugger, in the Ahlchemist, boasts that his shop has its maple block, its silver tongs, its Winchester pipe, and fire of juniper, and he kept his tobacco in “fine lily pots that, opened, smell like conserve of roses or French beans.” Upon the maple block the leaves were shredded; the silver tongs were for holding the coal or fire juniper, this wood being preferred, because when once kindled it seldom or ever went out.

The Remarkable Healing Effects of Tobacco (Historically, of Course…)

The devotees of tobacco accredited it with all kinds of virtues. Bobadil, in Every Man in his Humour, protests that in India, he and a dozen others never received the taste of any other nutriment in the world for the space of one and twenty weeks,” but the fume of this simple only; therefore it cannot be but most divine… I could say what I know of the virtue of it for the expulsion of rheums, raw humours, crudities, obstructions, with a thousand of this kind, I do hold it to be the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of man.” Fagon, the physician of Louis XIV., was scarcely less emphatic in its praise; used with judgment and moderation, he considered it might “justly claim precedence of all the other remedies; “that it had all the qualities of Homer’s nepenthes, as it makes us forget the cares of life, and even supplies the want of victuals.

Death Penalty for Taking Snuff, and Early Warnings on Tobacco’s Danger:

On the other hand, its opponents were equally dogmatic. Every one has heard of James I.’s Counterblast, but other rulers went much farther in their hatred of tobacco, though it was rather directed against it in the form of snuff than of smoking. Mahomed IV. and the Grand Duke of Muscovy inflicted the penalty of death upon snuff-takers; the King of Persia cut off their noses; Pope Urban VIII. excommunicated them. It was said that snuff dried up the brain, so that only a little black lump was found after death in the skulls of the takers. Equally absurd were the stories told of the evil effects of smoking. Cob, in the play already quoted, Every Man in his Humour, says: “It’s good for nothing but to fill a man full of smoke and embers; there were four died out of one house last week with taking of it, and two more the bell went for yesternight; one of them they say will never ‘scape it; he voided a bushel of soot yesterday.” Persons of a serious cast of mind denounced it as a pestiferous and wicked poison from the devil.”

A Description of Pipes from Asia:

Pipes were sometimes made of silver, sometimes formed of a walnut shell, and also of clay. The most fashionable form was called “the woodcock’s head,” though the bowls of many were similar in shape to those now in use; in William III.’s reign, the bowls were sometimes of brass and iron. For examples of magnificent and curious pipes, however, we must go to the East. The collection of one of the Turkish pashas was aaid to have been worth 30,000. The diamonds that decorated a single pipe of one of the Viceroys of Egypt were reportea to be worth £3,000. Among such potentates it was not unusual to see, besides rings of large diamonds round the amber mouthpiece, tassels of the same precious stones suspended from the stem. These chibouks, however, were produced only on state occasions. In China, where every man and woman smokes, the pipes are long, light, delicate tubes, with bowls scarcely larger than sparrows’ eggs, and seldom ornamented; into these is pressed a bright yellow tobacco, cut into very small shreds. In the opium pipe the bowl is in the centre and extremely small, as the quantity of the narcotic used at a time is so very minute that it is exhausted in three whiffs.

Hashish: The Most Dangerous Smoke?

The most deadly form of smoking is that of the hashish, a species of tobacco derived from hempseed; it produces delirium and homicidal mania. It was after inhaling this potent stimulant that the Malay used to run-a-muck; maddened by its fumes, he would draw his knife, rush through the streets, and stab at every one ho met. Such are a few of the curiosities connected with one of the most remarkable habits of man.

Cigar vs. Pipe in European Antiquity

In 1787 Mrs. Barbauld, of “Evenings at Home” celebrity, in a letter to her brother, Dr. Aiken, asks him if he had ever seen “seguars, leaf-tobacco, rolled up of the length of one’s finger which they light and smoke without a pipe.” This question points pretty conclusively to the date of the introduction of the cigar into England. Yet the cigar is far more ancient than the pipe, unless we accept the Irish legend which asserts that in the helmet of one of the statues of an early Irish king is stuck a small pipe exactly resembling the “dudheen” that a modern Irishman occasionally wears in the band of his felt hat. Still, if his Hibernian majesty did smoke, it was not tobacco, so the argument goes for nothing.history-smoking-tobacco-strangetrek-com-2