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A Haze Of Tobacco Smoke

Cigar smoking became so popular among gentlemen in Britain and France that European trains introduced smoking cars to accommodate them, and hotels and clubs boasted smoking rooms. The after-dinner cigar, accompanied by glasses of port or brandy, also became a tradition. This ritual was given an added boost by the fact that the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII and a leader of fashion, was a devotee, much to the annoyance of his mother, Queen Victoria, who disliked smoking.

Tobacco use has long been a controversial subject, considered by turns a vice, a panacea, an economic salvation and a foolish and dangerous habit. However, it was perceived, by the end of the seventeenth century tobacco had become the economic staple of Virginia, easily making her the wealthiest of the 13 colonies by the time of the American Revolution.

We do not know when it was first grown, or smoked, but we can be pretty certain that the inhabitants of Europe were unaware of tobacco until after Columbus's epic voyage. The Old World encountered tobacco at the dawn of the European Age of Exploration. On the morning of October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot on a small island in the Bahamas. Believing himself to be off the coast of Asia, the Admiral dressed in his best to meet the local inhabitants. The Arawaks offered him some dried leaves as a token of friendship. Those leaves were tobacco. A few days later, a party from Columbus' ship docked off the coast of Cuba and witnessed local peoples there smoking tobacco through Y-shaped tubes which they inserted in their noses, inhaling smoke until they lost consciousness.

Early on, the medicinal properties of tobacco were of great interest to Europe. Over a dozen books published around the middle of the sixteenth century mention tobacco as a cure for everything from pains in the joints to epilepsy to plague. As one counsel had it, "Anything that harms a man inwardly from his girdle upward might be removed by a moderate use of the herb."

In 1560, Jean Nicot, a French ambassador, learned about the curative properties of tobacco when he was on assignment in Portugal. When he returned to France, he used the New World herb to cure the migraine headaches of Catherine de Medicis. The French became enthusiastic about tobacco, calling it the herbe a tous les maux, the plant against evil, pains and other bad things. By 1565, the plant was known as nicotaine, the basis of its genus name today.

By this time, Europeans were discovering recreational uses of tobacco as well as its medicinal ones. Although it is likely that both Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum, the two major species of tobacco, were grown as curiosities in the gardens of English botanists and apothecaries, smoking the herb for recreation was virtually unknown until mid-sixteenth century. The general English population was most likely first introduced to tobacco by Sir John Hawkins, who displayed it with the riches he accrued from a voyage to Florida in 1565.

Probably the most famous Englishman associated with the introduction of tobacco is Sir Walter Ralegh. Settlers rescued from his Roanoke Island expedition in 1586 had picked up the habit of tobacco smoking (or "drinking" as it came to be called). Sir Walter also is credited with the introduction of pipe smoking in court circles, where it was at first perceived as a strange and even alarming habit. Tradition tells the tale of Sir Walter's own servant coming upon his master with a smoking pipe, thinking he was on fire and drenching him with a bucket of water. Another legend depicts Ralegh introducing the habit of tobacco-drinking to his sovereign Elizabeth I.

Smoking quickly became the rage among the young court dandies, who loitered around in St. Paul's practicing smoke tricks with such evocative names as the "Gulpe," the "Retention" and the "Cuban Ebolition." There were those, however, who were convinced that the use of tobacco was both unhealthful and aesthetically distasteful.

In 1604, King James I of England published his pamphlet A Counterblaste to Tobacco, in which he describes 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.

Part of James' disaffection for tobacco may be attributed to his personal dislike of Sir Walter Ralegh. Another factor was the Spanish monopoly over the production and distribution of the plant, which was worth its weight in silver at the end of the sixteenth century. James I solved the former problem by beheading his enemy; his financial difficulty was at an end a decade after the publication of his pamphlet. An English source had been found for tobacco.

In 1606, two years after the publication of Counterblaste, the King granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London. In addition to claiming land for England and bringing the faith of the Church of England to the native peoples, the Virginia Company was also enjoined both by the crown and its members to make a tidy profit by whatever means it found expedient.

After the settlers landed on Jamestown Island in the spring of 1607, they quickly began searching for ways to make a fortune both for themselves and the Company. The gold and jewels they had hoped to find were nonexistent. Harvesting raw materials like fish, lumber and furs was difficult. Industries such as glassblowing, pitch and tar production, silk cultivation and mining required skilled labor and too much start-up time.

Within a few years of the founding of Virginia, both the settlers and the Company were beginning to give up hope of a profit. Fortunately for all concerned, help was on the way. In the spring of 1610, the young John Rolfe arrived at Jamestown, a member of the party which had been delayed by shipwreck on the Bermuda Islands.

This new settler observed the Powhatan Indians growing N. rustica. An English pamphlet of the time reported that: The people in the South parts of Virginia esteeme it [tobacco] exceedingly . . . ; they say that God in the creation did first make a woman, then a man, thirdly great maize, or Indian wheat, and fourthly, Tobacco.

Rolfe, however, was not impressed with the quality of N. rustica, which his contemporary William Strachey characterized as "poore and weake, and of a byting tast. . .," inferior in quality to the fine Spanish weed N. tabacum. Perhaps, however, the crop of the Powhatans gave Rolfe the idea of trying to grow N. tabacum in Virginia soil for himself. How Rolfe came by fine Trinadad tobacco seed is not known, but he was growing it experimentally by 1612 in Virginia. Rolfe's agricultural attempt was an unqualified success.

Although Sir Thomas Dale, deputy-governor of Virginia, initially limited tobacco cultivation in the fear that the settlers would neglect basic survival needs in their eagerness to finally get rich, 2,300 pounds of tobacco were exported to the Mother Country in 1615-16. True, this was a paltry amount compared with the over 50,000 pounds imported from Spain in the same period, but it was a start. In 1616, Rolfe visited England with his new wife Pocohontas and presented James I with a pamphlet in which the Virginian modestly revealed tobacco as "the principall commoditie the colony for the present yieldeth."

Little did Rolfe guess how important his tobacco crop would become to the economic survival of Virginia. Initially, the settlers went overboard, with predictable results. Conditions eventually stabilized, thanks to tight governmental controls. Virginia economy flourished. By 1630, the annual import of Virginia tobacco in England was not less than half a million pounds. By 1640, London was receiving nearly a million and a half pounds a year. Virginia tobacco was acknowledged as equal, if not superior, in quality to the Spanish weed. Tobacco was and is a controversial crop. For Virginians at the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, James I's "noxious weed" would ensure economic survival of the colony by becoming the Golden Weed of Virginia.

The word cigar originated from sikar, the Mayan-Indian word for smoking, which became cigarro in Spanish, although the word itself, and variations on it, did not come into general use until the mid-18th century. Cigars, more or less in the form that we know them today, were first made in Spain in the early 18th century, using Cuban tobacco. At that time, no cigars were exported from Cuba.

By 1790, cigar manufacture had spread north of the Pyrenees, with small factories being set up in France and Germany. The Dutch, too, started making cigars using tobacco from their Far Eastern colonies. But cigar smoking only became a widespread custom in France and Britain after the Peninsular War (1808-14), when returning British and French veterans made fashionable the habit they had learned while serving in Spain.

Production of "segars" began in Britain in 1820, and in 1821 an Act of Parliament was needed to set out regulations governing their production. Because of an import tax, foreign cigars in Britain were already regarded as a luxury item. Soon there was a demand for higher quality cigars in Europe, and Spanish cigars were superseded by those made in Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony, where cigar production had started during the mid-18th century.

Cigars, European smokers discovered, traveled better than tobacco. The cigar probably arrived in North America in 1762, when Israel Putnam, later an American general in the American War of Independence (1774-1778), returned from Cuba, where he had served in the British army. He came back to his home in Connecticut, where tobacco had been grown by settlers since the 17th century, with a selection of Havana cigars and large amounts of Cuban tobacco seed. Cigar factories were later set up in the Connecticut area, processing the tobacco grown from the Cuban seed. In the early 19th century American domestic production started to take off and Cuban cigars also began to be imported in significant numbers. But cigar smoking did not really boom in the United States until around the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, with individual brands emerging by the late 19th century. By then the cigar had become a status symbol in the United States.

Cigarettes, or paper cigars, first appeared on the scene in the early 19th century as a cheap alternative to cigars. The introduction of cigarette-making machines, in the 1880s, accelerated the growth in popularity of this form of smoking, which had become dominant by World War I. As a response, the production of machine-made cigars began in Cuba in the 1920s, after which both the manufacture and smoking of handmade cigars fell into a slow but steady decline. But since the early 1990s, there has been a major revival in the popularity of handmade cigars: they have become chic once more, cigars are just as popular as ever.

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