The History Of Tobacco In Society – Its A Long Story
If you listen to public health activists you get the impression tobacco was invented sometime in the 1920s, probably as a plot to addict children. The truth, of course, is a bit different. Humans and tobacco share a long history and most of it isn’t about commercial exploitation.
Tobacco’s origins lie in the rain forests and mountains of South America. These areas are a bit of a treasure chest when it comes to plants; we owe the region for potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers. Biologically these are all part of the nightshade family, which thrives in South America. There are other nightshades, though, and they include some fairly anonymous-looking flowering plants. Among them are 67 species in the genus Nicotinia – the tobacco plants.
The Sacred Leaf
Nobody knows exactly when people first discovered that these plants contained a mildly psychoactive drug, but it was definitely a while ago. Archaeologists have discovered that farmers were cultivating the plants by at least 1,000 BC, and probably earlier. The Maya civilization, which dominated Central America from around 2,600 BC until the 16th century, were using tobacco over 2,000 years ago. Some chewed it; most dried it and used it as snuff. Tobacco had religious significance to the Maya, and they also used it socially and as a medicine.
Tobacco also had an important spiritual role for Native Americans, especially in what’s now the eastern USA and Canada. We don’t know if they learned about it from the Maya, or began by using North American species, but by the time the first Europeans arrived it was widespread and common. The dried, cured leaves were burned on fires in religious ceremonies and smoked in pipes during negotiations – people believed that the smoke would carry their prayers to the spirit world. Tobacco was used as money. Gifts of it were traditional when asking someone for a favor.
Some say tobacco was so sacred to Native American people that social smoking was disapproved of. That probably varied though; while some tribes only seem to have made elaborate and beautiful ceremonial pipes, others also made simple clay ones. These are used for social smoking today, and probably have been for hundreds of years.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas they were fascinated by tobacco – both by the rituals and the effects of smoking. Christopher Columbus found people smoking crude cigars on Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492, and it wasn’t long before Spanish explorers started trying it themselves. By about 1528 it had been brought back to Spain, and it spread through Europe with amazing speed. Only five years later there were tobacco merchants in Portugal, and the French ambassador, Jean Nicot, brought it to France. If his name looks vaguely familiar that’s because nicotine was named after him. By the end of the 16th century European traders and explorers had spread tobacco most of the way around the world.
Tobacco Goes Commercial
Tobacco was still an expensive luxury, but that was about to change. When European colonists began settling in North America they relied on trading with the indigenous people, but gold and silver were in short supply. Instead, they resorted to trading tobacco, which European farming methods could grow in huge quantities, and by the 1620s it was becoming a major crop. Soon it was a semi-official currency; fines were measured in pounds of tobacco. The surplus was loaded into ships and sent to Europe, where demand grew as prices fell.
Tobacco needs a lot of land, and that drove the expansion of farms in North America. It also helped make them more productive. The soil in the Virginia colonies had never been farmed before, so it was too rich for European crops like wheat. The colonists soon found that if they grew tobacco on a field for a year or two, then planted it with wheat, the grain grew much better. It was tobacco that powered the early growth of the American economy – and it had a political effect too.
In the 1750s the rapidly increasing supply caused a collapse in prices. That was good news for smokers, but not so good for American planters. Many of them had borrowed heavily from London banks and now struggled to pay off their loans. Many accused Britain of a conspiracy to saddle the colonists with debt they could never pay off, and this helped kick-start the American Revolution. George Washington owed his bank over £2,000 – half a million dollars in today’s money. Thomas Jefferson’s debts were so catastrophic he nearly lost his farm.
History – and Hysteria
Set beside all this history, what we think of as the tobacco industry is a pretty new arrival. In the late 1870s total US cigarette production was only about 40,000 a day, all of them hand-rolled. When James Albert Bonsack invented the automatic cigarette roller in 1880 that rose to about 4 million a day, but cigarette smoking didn’t really take off until the early 20th century. By the 1950s over half of American men smoked, and about a third of women; the same was true in most of the western world and in Japan. Since the 1960s that’s fallen sharply, but in most countries at least a quarter of adults still smoke.
We’ve been using tobacco for thousands of years; in that time people have chewed, inhaled snuff and smoked pipes, cigars and cigarettes. Hookah, once found only in the Middle East and Asia, has become popular. Now we also have dissolvables, lozenges and of course the best “tobacco product” of all – electronic cigarettes. Ways to use tobacco – and specifically nicotine, because without that tobacco is basically spinach – come and go, but the popularity of the plant itself never fades.
Now have a small, but loud, minority of people who believe they can achieve “the first tobacco-free generation” by the second quarter of this century. You have to admire their ambition, but their grasp on reality leaves a bit to be desired. Humanity’s love affair with tobacco is older than the English language, older than Christianity, older than Judaism. Does anyone really think it’s going to end anytime soon? Neither do I, so I’m glad we have exciting new ways to use it that don’t involve inhaling burning leaves.
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