Tobacco Culture Essay - Critical Essays

Tobacco Culture


Tobacco Culture

Since European explorers first observed the plant being used by the native inhabitants of both South and North America, tobacco has been a source of controversy. Used by indigenous Americans in religious ceremonies, tobacco was initially lauded by some Europeans as a medication capable of curing or alleviating a wide variety of ailments, including headaches, tumors, and syphilis. The Old World's confidence in the medicinal properties of tobacco was in evidence as late as 1665, when people took snuff or smoked pipe tobacco hoping to protect themselves from the Great Plague. Not everyone, however, viewed tobacco as beneficial. In 1604 King James I of England published A Counterblaste to Tobacco in which he confronted tobacco's proponents, condemned tobacco and its smoke as unhealthy and unpleasant, and revealed his general distrust of the New World and its imports. Other monarchs shared James I's repugnance and accordingly taxed tobacco imports to discourage trade. Nevertheless, the increasingly profitable production of the plant in the New World colonies meant that politics would give way to economics. In the 1640s, for example, Virginia tobacco traders were instrumental in the Puritans' success in the English Civil War, and the new Parliamentarian government realized it was in its best interest to support tobacco production. By the late nineteenth century, when cigarettes became both inexpensive and accessible, tobacco consumption had become firmly entrenched in the cultures of both the New World and the Old.

Representative Works

Work for Chimney-Sweepers: or A Warning for Tobacconists 1602 (essay)

John Deacon
Tobacco tortvred; or, The filthie fvme of tobacco refined, shewing all sorts of subjects that the inward taking of tobacco fumes is very pernicious vnto their bodies, too too profluuious for many of their purses, and most pestiferous to the publike State, exemplified apparently by most fearefull effects … 1616 (essay)

John Frampton
Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde 1577 (non-fiction)

James I of England (James VI of Scotland)
A Counterblaste to Tobacco 1604 (essay)

Criticism: Social And Economic Attitudes Toward Tobacco

James I (essay date 1604)

SOURCE: “A Counterblaste to Tobacco,” in Minor Prose Works of King James VI and I, edited by James Craigie and prepared for the press by Alexander Law, Scottish Text Society, 1981, pp. 87-99.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1604, King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland) condemns tobacco use as a “vile and stinking” habit that that is corrupting the inhabitants of England both morally and physically. He considers it degrading for his subjects to “imitate the barbarous and beastly manners of the wilde, godlesse, and slauish Indians” by smoking.]

That the manifolde abuses of this vile custome of Tobacco...

(The entire section is 5086 words.)

G. L. Apperson (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: The Social History of Smoking, Martin Secker, 1914, 255 p.

[In the excerpt below, Apperson assembles references to tobacco use from a wide variety of sources, including plays, pamphlets, and novels, to chronicle the varying degrees of acceptance of smoking as a social activity from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.]


Tobacco engages
Both sexes, all ages,
The poor as well as the wealthy;
From the court to the cottage,
From childhood to dotage,
Both those that are sick and the healthy.

Wits' Recreations, 1640

This chapter and the next deal...

(The entire section is 31839 words.)

Joel Best (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Economic Interests and the Vindication of Deviance: Tobacco in Seventeenth Century Europe,” in The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 1979, pp. 171-82.

[In the following essay, Best demonstrates how in the seventeenth century “powerful persons and agencies” who had a political and economic stake in the tobacco trade between Europe and America succeeded in transforming tobacco into an acceptable product despite the persistence of social disapproval.]

Sociologists who analyze the invention of deviant labels typically emphasize the importance of differences in morality. They argue that new deviant labels are created when reform movements (or...

(The entire section is 5743 words.)

Janine Hartman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Dangerous American Substances in Jacobean England,” in Cahiers Elisabéthains, No. 46, October 1994, pp. 1-7.

[In the following essay, Hartman examines the ways in which English theatrical entertainment of the seventeenth century reflected King James's distrust of commodities from the New World—in particular, tobacco.]

It is a truism that the English seek the exotic in order to reassure themselves that it is so much better to be British. That has certainly been true of England's élites, whether those courted by the masque writer or Agatha Christie. That parochialism which is a gentle joke in twentieth century mass market middle class fiction is a...

(The entire section is 3411 words.)

Criticism: Tobacco Trade Between The Old World And The New World

Earl J. Hamilton (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “What the New World Gave the Economy of the Old,” in First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 861-65.

[In the following excerpt, Hamilton examines the changing medical and social attitudes to tobacco from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century and claims that tobacco was “the very worst gift of the New World to the Old.”]

There can be no doubt as to the American origin of tobacco, for it was cultivated in almost every place discovered, explored, or settled from Brazil to Canada; and it was shared with the intruders, whom the Indians gladly taught how to smoke it. Europeans...

(The entire section is 2408 words.)

John R. Pagan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Growth of the Tobacco Trade between London and Virginia, 1614-40,” in Guildhall Studies in London History, Vol. III, No. 4, April 1979, pp. 248-62.

[In the following essay, Pagan traces the economic ascendancy established by the Virginia tobacco trade and how it translated into significant political power for the tobacco growers and the London-based tobacco importers.]

Disheartened by a staggering mortality rate1 and a series of ruinously expensive agricultural and industrial failures,2 the settlers at Jamestown and their backers in the Virginia Company of London were on the verge of abandoning the colony when John Rolfe began his...

(The entire section is 6473 words.)

Criticism: Tobacco Smuggling In Great Britain

SOURCE: “The English and Scottish Tobacco Trades in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Legal and Illegal Trade,” in The Economic History Review, Second Series, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, August 1982, pp. 354-72.

[In the following essay, Nash examines the well-organized smuggling operations that were designed to circumvent the high taxes placed on tobacco during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such activities, the critic observes, resulted in an inaccurate historical accounting of the volume and “regional impact” of the tobacco trade in both England and Scotland.]

In a study published in 1958 Prof. Cole made a challenging statement about the dangers...

(The entire section is 9309 words.)

Further Reading


Breen, T. H. “Preface.” In Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution, pp. xi-xiv. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Asserts that the eighteenth-century Virginia tobacco growers established the social relationships and hierarchies of their era “in the fields and the marketplace” of the tobacco trade.

Clemens, Paul G. E. “The Operation of an Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Tobacco Plantation.” Agricultural History XLIX, No. 3 (July 1975): 517-31.

Analyzes the economic conditions of eighteenth-century tobacco farmers in the Chesapeake...

(The entire section is 541 words.)