Adventures in Smoking in the Good Old Days

Westbrook Pegler

Rome News-Tribune/February 18, 1954

NEW YORK—When I began to smoke, there were only a few advertised brands of cigarettes and the cigarette, a whole, had a bad social reputation. It was commonly called by a vulgar name which implied that cigarettes were smoked mainly, if not exclusively, by males who employed themselves as bargaining agents for fallen women. This innuendo was futile, however, because my set was not yet aware that women ever became fallen, and thus, of course, we had no opinion about those who managed their secular affairs.

I suspect that this stroke of propaganda was devised by the apprehensive professional alarmists who rode circuit among the public schools in our Midwestern country towns equipped with a standard kit of placards, including highly colored rolls which came down out of a box on hartshorn shade-rollers, like the Rand-McNally maps of Brazil and Europe in the geography class. Sweden and Norway were one, then Montenegro and Serbia were winsome little countries, each with its own color, even as old Siwash and Harvard. Cetinije was the capital of  Montenegro and Belgrade the capital of Serbia and I am hard to persuade that the people thereof have been any the happier by reason of the series of wars for freedom that have swept over them in the years since. Kings Peter and Nicholas were not so bad, eh?


This number was the wham-sock of the anti-cigarette show in our school. All the children were spared a half hour from routine drudgery to gather in the assembly room where Mr. Booth, the principal, would introduce the speaker with a wintry whimsy, for he was a hard-driven family man who got about $90 a month and had to fill in as a checker at the freight-dock in berry season when the farmers were rushing their currants and things to the city. He also had to lick an occasional young oaf in stand-up combat and on one dramatic occasion a teenling girl tore into him, screaming blue murder, and the pair of them tumbled down the stairs with the waterbucket clanking along with them. I think she claimed that Mr. Booth tried to whale her, but nobody believed that because he was a very decent man and this character was known to be unruly.

Stout Stuff

In the wham-sock of the anti-cigarette show, the first sheet showed a fresh young kid, known as a smart aleck, experimenting with a cigarette and blowing a little cloud. The next one was fantasy, for the little boy was grown to his teens or thereabouts and was taking on strange lineaments. In the third and final panel, he had developed into a factory with a smokestack which emitted billows of black smoke. This was supposed to be a terrible fate, but the whole thing was lost on me because I had recently demolished the Santa Clause chimney myth by my own logic and nobody could tell me that I would ever become a four-story brick plant a block long where they manufactured Steinway grands or Pear’s soap.

I have known others who said they were made horribly sick by their first smoke but I must have been made of very stout stuff. The only discomfort that I suffered was a stab right under the wishbone when I took my first inhale. A bayonet couldn’t have hurt worse. But I babied myself, taking smaller drafts, until I had leathered my respiratory tract and in a little while I could swallow a big drag I remember that inhaling made me dizzy in a pleasant way, but that enjoyment disappeared after a little experience. I suppose it is caused by the construction of the capillaries in the brain and that in time something happens to adjust that phenomenon. Anyway, that fun was of short duration.

The cigarette most widely advertised them was Sweet Caporal. It faded out for some years but came back strong during the first war, under the slogan “Ask Dad; he knows!” Dad had smoked them in the Spanish-American War. But mostly the cigarette smokers were using makings and Macklyn Arbuckle, a stout character-comedian, gave homemade cigarettes a great plug in a scene in a western melodrama called “The Round Up” in which he poured some Duke’s mixture or Durham into a paper and then, with one quick, sleight-of-hand flip, rolled it one-handed, wet it, jabbed it into his mouth and scratched a kitchen match on his pants to light it. He was a cowboy with a heart of gold. I never met anyone who could do that trick offstage, although the knack was said to be common among cowboys out west. I tried it but the tobacco grains got into my eyes and burned like fire, so I gave up.

Indian Tobacco

We also smoked mullein weed, known as Indian tobacco, but only in pipes which we sometimes manufactured for ourselves out of corncobs. A Mr. Corley, of Tampa, writes me that he smoked a week known as rabbit-tobacco, which I do not recognize by that name. He also smoked cornsilk, but he agrees with me that a springy, four-inch length of rattan off the arm—or seat, if you prefer—of a baby carriage, not too dry, mind you, was as sweet a smoke as one could want. He says that at the age of 9 or 10 he and his colleagues smoked a commercial tobacco called Drum which he bought for himself at a nickel a package, with his profits from the sale of the Chicago Blade and Saturday Ledger.

I was partner with my brother in the exclusive agency for all the city papers in our little town and people used to comment on the eager diligence and enterprise of two little Pegler boys and predict that we would go far. Little did elders know of the inner motives of those urchins who in those days were known as little merchants. I bought makings with some of my receipts, using a friend who drive an express wagon to make the buys at Sampson’s store, and squandered the rest on chocolate nut sundaes and western sandwiches. By Gad, men, when I put my chips back in the rack, I will not repine. I have lived.

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