On Cigarettes

Baltimore Evening Sun/July 25, 1910

Those fair dames of Pittsburg who grow so excited over the alleged fact that Mrs. Nicholas Longworth is fond of a cigarette after dinner display to the full two characteristic weaknesses of their adorable sex, the one being a tendency to reason by emotion and the other being an absurd reverence for more or less hollow conventions. What possible immorality can there in the act of smoking a cigarette? One may argue against it, perhaps, that it destroys the purity of the circumambient atmosphere, that it is a waste of time and money, or even, by a stretching of the facts, that it is unhealthful, but certainly not that it is immoral. Cigarette smoking, in truth, has no more to do with morality and piano-playing, sea-bathing, or the eating of peanuts. Some of the most moral folk in Christendom smoke cigarettes, and by the same token some of the most thoroughly graceless find the habit unsatisfying or obnoxious.

It is even impossible to show that cigarette smoking is incompatible with the character of a “lady,” for in every civilized country, save the United States, thousands of persons whose title to that honorable appellation is entirely beyond question smoke cigarettes with evident satisfaction and without the slightest attempt at concealment. If we assume “lady” to mean a woman who obeys the Ten Commandments to the letter, and particularly one of them, it is perfectly possible to show that thousands of such ladies smoke cigarettes. And if, on the other hand, we assume “lady” to mean a female person of recognized social position, without reference to personal purity, it is possible, again, to produce thousands of such ladies who smoke and smoke and smoke—generals’ wives, millionaires’ wives, descendants of William the Conqueror, countesses, baronesses, duchesses and even queens.

The Mother and Her Babe

The argument that smoking is degrading to a woman; that it is a habit which should be reserved for human males of voting age and educated baboons; that it undermines, in some vague manner, the dignity of the gentler sex—in this argument there is not much validity. It is true enough, of course, that the picture of a young mother rocking her first-born to sleep with a cigarette in her mouth is a picture which, in a very real sense outrages our conception of the fitness of things, but at the same time let us remember that it is a picture which has no actual existence, even in those countries where cigarette smoking among women is common.

Women who smoke do not smoke constantly from dawn to dark. There is commonly, indeed, a more or less lengthy hiatus between cigarette and cigarette; and the young mother may be trusted to make such a hiatus synchronize with the rocking of her young one. The father of the child is a smoker, too—but he did not march to the hymeneal altar with a corncob pipe in his mouth, and he does not smoke Pittsburg stogies at funerals, now when engaged in court upon jury duty, nor when taking a shower bath, nor when besieging a recalcitrant customer, nor when engrossed by another delicate and important enterprise. Smoking among civilized folk is a pastime for leisure moments. Only hodcarriers and literary men smoke at their work, and they are able to do so only because their work requires neither skill nor attention.

Antipathy to the Unfamiliar

No, it is impossible to prove that cigarette smoking among women is immoral. But why, then, are the Pittsburg Mathildas so violently opposed to it? Chiefly, it would appear because it strikes them as unusual, because it is not the custom in Pittsburg. Here we come upon the secret of most, if not all, outbreaks of militant prudery. A thing is denounced as barbarous and indecent, not because it is so in fact, but merely because it is unfamiliar—and the vulgar mind is wildly suspicious of everything unfamiliar. The French woman who heightens the color of her lips and eyebrows with honest pigments is branded a dubious and nasty person—and yet nine-tenths of all American reduce the color of their noses with talcum powder, and nothing is thought of it. The German who takes his family to a beer garden is a drunken savage, the Englishman who respects rank and birth is a toady, the Frenchman who openly admires feminine beauty is a roue, the Italian who fastens rings to his ears is a barbarian, the Chinaman who wears his hair long instead of short is a filthy beast—and yet there are American customs, and thousands of them, a hundred times as offensive to the civilized mind as any of those here catalogued.

What must an educated German think of folk who read the New York Journal? What must self-respecting Englishmen think of folk who wear American flags in their hats and quarrel with waiters? There are, again, men in this fair land of ours—regiments and regiments of them, and all presumably sane—who wear absurd diamond rings upon their fingers, strive for high office, in ridiculous tinpot organizations and trim  and train their whiskers into fantastic and unearthly designs. But the Germans and French do not mistake such banalities for immorality. They know very well that a man may be a donkey and yet be very moral—as most donkeys are, in fact. They do not confuse questions of taste with questions of morals.

A Case in Point

In America a different tale there is to tell. What may be denominated as toxic morality is one of our worst vices. Half of the people of this country—half of those, that is, who are ever heard from at all—seem to devote most of their time to discovering criminal intent in the acts of the other half. When the actual supply of criminality runs short, new and incredible crimes are invented and their commission is ascribed to mythical persons. The so-called white slave crusade had its origin in that manner. The white slave trade is a myth, the white slave traders are myths, and their victims are myths, and yet a whole literature has spring up about that grotesque group of fictions, and many excellent persons seem to spend most of their time shedding tears over it and calling upon the purely imaginary felons to sin no more.

Now comes the turn of cigarette smoking. An entirely harmless act, as inert morally as snoring, is converted, by fiat, into a hideous crime, and a horde of Mad Mullahs begin bawling about it. Today they merely call upon Mrs. Longworth to abandon her evil living. Tomorrow, no doubt, they will demand that she be jailed.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.