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A Note on Tobacco

All visitors to clubs and pubs saw and smelled “the fume of pipes,” and that smoke has hovered over London taverns since Sir Walter Raleigh, according to local legend, first began to smoke in Islington. A few years later an early seventeenth-century German visitor noted that Londoners “are constantly smoking tobacco and in this manner—they have pipes on purpose made of clay, into the farther end of which they put the herb, so dry that may be rubbed into powder, and putting fire to it.” Clay pipes are to be found everywhere in archaeological excavations.

Tobacco was at first supposed to have medicinal properties, and could be purchased at the shops of apothecaries, as a “Remedy for phlegmatick people.” Children were permitted to smoke it, too, and “in schools substituted a tobacco for breakfast, and were initiated into the trick of expelling the smoke through their nostrils by their masters.” One diarist in 1702 recalled an evening with his brother at Garraway’s Coffee House where he was “surprised to see his sickly child of three years old fill its pipe of tobacco, after that a second and third pipe without the least concern.”

This “strange drug” was everywhere in seventeenth-century London, but it had its detractors who denounced it for creating idleness and stupor. Even the King, James I, wrote a “Counterblast to Tobacco” in which he describes “an unctuous and oily kind of soot found in some great tobacco-takers that after their death were opened.” Yet nothing can dissuade Londoners from taking their amusements, or intoxicants, in a city so reliant upon excess. Although the medicinal properties of tobacco were advertised, its addictive properties soon became evident as a charm against anxiety and isolation—“a Companion in Solitude,” as one observer put it, “an Amusement in Company, an innocent Diversion to Melancholy.” We hear of early seventeenth-century vagrants, such as the Roaring Boys and the Bonaventoes, smoking pipes. Tobacco became, in that sense, one of the necessary pleasures of the London poor.

Another traveller to seventeenth-century London noted how the citizens smoked their small pipes at a play or in a tavern and how “it makes them riotous and merry, and rather drowsy, just as if they were drunk … they use it so abundantly because of the pleasure it gives.” It was also a matter of comment that a pipe was “passed round,” and that London women smoked “in secret.” There was a great trade in tobacco, close to half a million pounds, and so many shops sold pipes and tobacco that in themselves they formed “a large city.” So a city of smoke was wreathed within a city of trade. It has been suggested that, in the 1770s, the fashion if not the habit abated; but despite Samuel Johnson’s remark, in 1773, that “smoking has gone out,” in reality pipe-smoking effortlessly merged with the later use of the cigarette.

Cigarettes entered London soon after the Crimean War: the first manufactory was set up in Walworth in 1857. A second and third were set up in Queen Victoria Street and Leicester Square respectively, under the ownership of Greek immigrants, and the first filter—known as the “Cambridge” cigarette—was manufactured in 1865. “Fag” was the name applied only to the cheaper variety of cigarette. The addiction was always strongly present. In fact the city itself seemed to promote it. “I strive after tobacco,” Lamb once wrote, “as other men strive after virtue.” The tobacco warehouse in nineteenth-century London Docks contained almost five million pounds’ sterling worth of that commodity, and there were very many of the poor who spent time “picking up the ends of cigars thrown away as useless by the smokers in the streets,” selling the waste product at a price of 6d to 10d per pound. Every aspect of London can take part in trade.

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