Tobacco smoking history
Hail thou inspiring plant! Thou balm of life,
Well might thy worth engage two nations' strife;
Exhaustless fountain of Britannia's wealth;
Thou friend of wisdom and thou source of health.
-from an early tobacco label
Tobacco, that outlandish weed
It spends the brain, and spoiles the seede
It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight
It robs a woman of her right.
As these two verses show, 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.
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.
By 1558, Frere Andre Thevet, who had traveled in Brazil, published a description of tobacco which was included in Thomas Hacket's The New Found World a decade later:
There is another secret herb . . . which they [the natives of Brazil] most commonly bear about them, for that they esteem it marvellous profitable for many things. . . . The Christians that do now inhabit there are become very desirous of this herb. . . .
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. As the opening speech of Moliere's Don Juan explains:
. . . there is nothing like tobacco. It's the passion of the virtuous man and whoever lives without tobacco isn't worthy of living. Not only does it purge the human brain, but it also instructs the soul in virtue and one learns from it how to be a virtuous man. Haven't you noticed how well one treats another after taking it. . . tobacco inspires feelings, honor and virtue in all those who take it.
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). Hariot remarks in his account of 1588 that:
We ourselves during the time we were there used to suck it after their [the Native Americans'] manner, as also since our return, and have found many rare and wonderful experiments of the virtues thereof, of which the relation would require a volume of itself: the use of it by so many of late, men and women of great calling as else, and some learned Physicians also, is sufficient witness.