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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Guest Post by Elizabeth Bailey

Today I have the opportunity to host Elizabeth Bailey who wrote a very interesting guest post for us on tobacco use in Georgian times.  Elizabeth writes a historical mystery series, the Lady Fan Mysteries.  Without further ado, please read on !

Pipes, Snuff, and Poison

Guest Post by Elizabeth Bailey, Author of
The Deathly Portent

Book cover of The Deathly Portent by Elizabeth Bailey

Looking at images of Georgian life, one gets the impression that the use of tobacco was neither general nor widespread. Caricatures tend to depict an exaggerated truth, and only in a few does one find a pipe smoker, and in none a man taking snuff.

Rowlandson shows one soldier smoking in a group of five, and similarly one working man among seven in a pub. A few men are depicted taking a pipe at their own hearth. Ackermann’s Fleet Prison yard, with groups enough to form a crowd, has one lone fellow with smoke issuing from his long clay pipe. Only Hogarth has half the males smoking pipes in a single group, and that is in a scene of drunken debauch!


It seems fair to assume, then, that although smoking was prevalent not everyone indulged in the habit; those who did confined their pipes to the pub, the coffee house or home. One can also be confident that far fewer women than men took tobacco at all, although an image of an elderly working class dame with a pipe pops up occasionally.

Clearly many did use snuff, because it was a high production trade and is mentioned in contemporary accounts. But although tobacco had a place, it seems unlikely that its use was anything like as widespread as it was during the earlier years of the twentieth century. Yet those Georgians who disapproved of the use of tobacco appear convinced that it was highly prevalent in their own time.

I have not yet killed off a character with tobacco, but I well might. The dangers were known. Tobacco is listed in a late 18th Century treatise on poisons. According to the writer, there was evidence to suggest it was an active poison, “yet everyone knows that under the influence of habit it is used in immense quantities over the whole world as an article of luxury, without any bad effect having ever been clearly traced to it.”

Much was made of the effects of snuff on workmen who manufactured it, some sources claiming it gave them bronchitis and dysentery among other ailments, but others managed to prove that workmen became used to it and didn’t suffer any ill effects. As ever, those with a vested interest will find a way to prove their point!

Such symptoms as were noted are known to us now: speeded up heart rate, giddiness, shortness of breath, spasms, fainting, sickness, weak pulse and sleepiness. One doctor suspected apoplexy (heart attack) “is one of the evils in train of that disgusting practice”, referring to taking snuff. Two young men actually died from tobacco poisoning, having smoked about “seventeen pipes at a sitting”. One wonders how that compares with 20 or 40 a day now?

We are indebted to a French chemist of the era, Vauquelin, for naming the killer substance in tobacco as nicotine. Later chemists argued about which precise part of tobacco caused the problems, but it was generally agreed that tobacco contained an “acrid, alkaline principle and an essential oil to which the alkaloid adheres with great obstinacy”, which was bad news.

As early as King James, who wrote “The Counter-Blaste to Tobacco” within a few years of its introduction into Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, it was believed that the smoking habit would result in “evil consequences” because of its poisonous qualities. Some governments tried to stop its introduction, although their methods were harsher than our current bans on smoking in public places. Popes excommunicated those who smoked in St Peters; in Russia it was punished with amputation of the nose; and in the Canton of Bern it ranked next to adultery.

Did that make any difference? Not according to the treatise writer: “Like every other persecuted novelty, however, smoking and snuff-taking passed from place to place with rapidity; and now there appear to be only two luxuries which yield to it in prevalence, spirituous liquors and tea.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chôse!

I suspect the anti-tobacco sentiment we now live with had its effect on my writing without conscious decision, because Francis does not indulge in this habit, although Ottilia is addicted to coffee. But one could not faithfully write of the Georgian world without including tobacco, and Jeremiah Wagstaff fills the bill in The Deathly Portent, smoking his clay pipe in his corner of the Cock and Bottle.

Elizabeth Bailey, author

Thanks Elizabeth for this wonderful post!  It has been great to have you here!  The Deathly Portent is available in the US in April and the UK in June.  You can visit Elizabeth at her website for more information about her books.


Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. It's pity they didn't stop its introduction, Liz. Interesting that even up to the 1960s it was portrayed as manly and even sexy in the media. If they'd flashed a 'kissing an ashtray' ad in the cinema then, we might not battling the health and addiction problems we have now. Extremely interesting post, as per. I suppose we do have a duty when writing not to promote something that is blatantly bad. Diffucult when writing historical accurately. Great research! :)

    1. For all of the "crazy" advertisements they had back then is is surprising that they didn't have an ad like that. Even if they didn't know all of the terrible things that it does to you, there is still the smell and staining that comes with smoking that you can see.

  2. Yes interesting post indeed! But you know when there is cash to be made...that's why our government won't just outlaw it, they still make nice tax money from it.
    Anyways, sounds like an interesting series and the cover is just gorgeous.

    1. You know it! I agree that the cover is pretty!

  3. Thanks, both. I'm old enough to remember as a teenager that it was cool to smoke! We used to talk with a fag in our mouths, light two together and try and blow smoke rings. I think smoking must have been at its height in the early 20th century. It was regarded as incredibly sexy and you see that in black and white movies.

    1. You are so right, the old movies do spend a lot of time showing smoking and it's glamour.

  4. Interesting post. I have mainly considered early tobacco use in connection with the snuff use in the Regency romances. Amputation of the nose seems a bit radical.

    1. That is how I have always thought about early tobacco use too.

  5. I love this time period and your research and book
    would be fabulous to read!
    Many thanks, Cindi

  6. The Regency period is one of the most interesting and I'd love a chance to win a copy of The Deadly Portent.

    I find it interesting that even though tobacco was known to be bad for a person back then that one of our first "industries" in the new world was growing tobacco in Virginia. Seems like we still haven't learned our lesson that tobacco is one more thing that's addicitive!

    1. I know! I can see why it is so hard to kick the habit from society - it is entrenched in our history all the way back.

  7. sounds like something i would enjoy!!! thank you & congrats to Elizabeth!!!!

  8. Interesting how smoking goes so far back and is such a part of culture even today although it is becoming taboo now. I still remember my grandma sniffing snuff(I guess it was called) which was powdered tabacco. I think it was kind of fashionable.(Don't quote me on that though lol!)

    1. I'm pretty sure at one time snuff use was fashionable. I know that Dolley Madison, the 4th First Lady, used it.

  9. Interesting how some of our arguments evolve (and don't!), such as the effects of tobacco. How can anyone think it is good for you is beyond me..
    I really enjoyed Bailey's first book in the series, it was laugh out loud and serious too, I loved the writing style. I hope the new one is just as good!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the first book. I haven't read it yet but it sounded good.

  10. Very interesting post. I lost my father to Emphysema. I also have 4 siblings that suffer with it :(
    It makes me angry that tobacco products are still legal with all the information we have these days.


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