Academic journal article The Historian

The Pernicious Weed: Anti-Tobacco Sentiments in Periodical Literature, 1800-1870

Academic journal article The Historian

The Pernicious Weed: Anti-Tobacco Sentiments in Periodical Literature, 1800-1870

Article excerpt

"[S]hew me one blackleg, from Dan to Beersheba, who does not use the weed, and I will shew you a sea serpent." (1)

--Reverend George Trask

Offered a good cigar, [Horace Greeley] waved it away with: "No, I thank you. I haven't got so low down as that yet. I only drink and swear." (2)

--Horace Greeley

THE ANTI-TOBACCO MOVEMENT in the United States did not suddenly spring into existence after the US Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health issued its January 1964 report. Concerns about tobacco's harmful effects began emerging soon after Christopher Columbus received its dried leaves from the Arawaks in October 1492 and its use began to spread. (3) Although their actions are largely unacknowledged in the contemporary era, the late-twentieth-century movement had its foundations in the first organized actions of activists against "the filthy weed" in the nineteenth century.

Anti-tobacconists in that latter period were familiar with the history and literature of those who had assailed the plant before them. In addition to speeches, sermons, books, and tracts, reformers utilized the era's periodical literature to spread their crusade. This literature provides an excellent lens for examining their arguments against tobacco's use. Agitators assaulted it as an agricultural, social, physical (or health), and moral evil. Herein rests a chief difference between the early-nineteenth-century movement and those that came later. Anti-tobacco reformers of this earlier period sought voluntary abstinence through moral persuasion, while the Progressive-Era and late-twentieth-century movements pursued legal prohibition, in addition to voluntary measures. Even though they lacked the benefits of modern science on the topic, nineteenth-century writers presented many arguments similar to those of their modern counterparts, as well as some quite exaggerated ideas.

The anti-tobacconists acted in a time filled with Second-Great-Awakening-inspired movements. This Christian revival gave groups a sense of mission to maximize the value of each individual in God's eyes. Activists sought improvements in education, medical care, treatment for the mentally ill, and in women's rights, in addition to temperance and abolition. (4) However, this era's anti-tobacco efforts lost momentum in the 1850s, when abolition increasingly overwhelmed other social issues in the public discourse. It largely ceased with the Civil War's outbreak.

Scholarship specifically related to anti-tobacco efforts in the United States is almost exclusively focused on either the Progressive-Era or late-twentieth-century movements. For instance, in his book Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence, Jordan Goodman states,

   To speak of an early movement in the United States would be an
   exaggeration since the movement was perhaps no more than the
   publication, at irregular times, of the Anti-Tobacco Journal
   between 1857 and 1872. The main object of the attack was chewing
   tobacco and the main thrust was its uncleanliness. (5)

Mark Wolfson's and Ronald Troyer's publications also support the stance that there have only been two waves of tobacco control activism in American history, the Progressive Era and the one emerging in the 1960s. (6)

As revealed by these representative examples, this school of thought sees the first true anti-tobacco movement forming in response to the cigarette's proliferation in the last two decades on the nineteenth century. This phase produced anti-tobacco legislation in 15 states, while 22 others considered it. Lucy Page Gaston (1860-1924), founder of the Anti-Cigarette League of America, is highlighted as the primary activist with support from leading lights like Henry Ford, Frances Willard, and Thomas Edison. (7) Another war, this time the First World War helped deflate the movement: Almost all legislation was repealed by 1930. Prohibitions on the sale of tobacco products to minors were this period's legacy. …

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