Tobacco Culture Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.