Why We Smoked

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

[Picture of Santa Claus Smoking (Lucky Strike Ad)]IMAGINE everyone smoked. Even Santa Claus.

Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, that was the case: you could smoke cigarettes openly and indoors. Heck, I can remember visiting my GP — I sat in the surgery waiting room reading a magazine and smoking (like everyone else) — and when I was called in, the doctor lit-up and offered me a cigarette from a lovely cigarette box he kept on his desk. Hard to imagine today!

[Picture of Peter Cook Smoking][Picture of John Lennon smoking] People smoked in their bed in Hospital wards! And on buses and trains. I was even offered a cigarette at a job interview (to relax me, put me at my ease).

Witnesses and Judges smoked. Teachers smoked, policemen smoked. People smoked at their desks at work. People on ‘Parkinson’ smoked during their interview — yes… PEOPLE SMOKED ON TV! They smoked on stage and in movies too.

[Picture of gift cigars for birth of a boy]It’s true to say that anyone would feel awkward and edgy sitting down or standing around doing nothing. Yet somehow you could stop dead in the street to light up or just hang around and smoke; smoking permitted relaxation. On the other hand, fathers-to-be were portrayed as chain smoking outside the delivery room, stressed about childbirth. But when the baby arrives — he’s down to the pub handing out cigars!

As children we were used to running errands, and we often bought cigarettes for our elders. As a result it was pretty easy to buy cigarettes — not only was it acceptable for a child to buy cigarettes, but cigarettes were cheap and you could even buy them individually or in packs of five, ten or twenty. Cigarette vending machines catered for when the shop was shut in the evening.

[Picture of Schoolkids enjoying a fly puff] [Picture of kids smoking ornament]

[Cigarette coffee table box]In the home, ashtrays and cigarette boxes were coffee table requisites — and there were plenty of styles to choose from — but remember: the neighbours would be judging your choices!

  • Cigarettes were very easy to come by

[Picture of lad smoking a tab]We kids would smoke to look ‘grown up’ — but then blow smoke-rings and spoil the illusion. We wanted first of all to be taken seriously, to be considered as valid members of society and to have respect. Ciggies were a social device that provided the key — this was much more important initially than mere image.

[Picture of Spin-o-matic ashtray]This was because smoking was everyday reality and normality; it was entangled in every sociological group, every age, every class, gender, creed and colour. From working class and earthy (matches and roll-ups) through pretentious and artistic (cigarette holder, gold gas lighter) to rich (cigar, jewelled gas lighter, massive ashtray), it didn’t matter; you passed around your packet, offering a cigarette to the whole group in your company. It was understood that you could always ‘bum’ a cigarette or a light from a stranger.

Cigarette coupons were also part of family life — you got them in the cigarette packets and you collected them to cash in for ‘gifts’, but they became a currency of their own. I fondly remember helping my parents with counting the coupons and looking through the catalogue for what we could get. Happy days.

There was sponsorship and advertising for cigarettes everywhere too. I was well aware of Marlboro branding on Formula One cars, but I was not affected by this other than to be aware of the brand.
[Picture of Spencer Tracey smoking ad]

Spencer Tracey was a HUGE movie star, and we all knew he smoked ‘Lucky Strike’… so we tried to get a hold of that brand here in the UK whenever we could.
[Picture of Bilko smoking Ad]

Bilko was the reason I switched to Camel. Chesterfield, Marlboro and Lucky Strike were too hard to come by, but for some reason we could get a pack of Camels. It was enough of a statement to smoke an American cigarette, as opposed to ‘proper’ British fags like Regal and Embassy Tipped or Number Six or Woodbine.

[Picture of Ronald Reagan smoking ad] I can remember the first time I saw a long multi-pack of cigarettes: it was in a Ronald Reagan ad (Hey — didn’t he become President of the USA?).

The taglines were about “pleasure” and “flavor”, but also about being “kind to your throat”. These were pretty irrelevant to us; we wanted an image, and this became inextricably linked to growing up and finding an individual identity within a society framework and culture. It helped to have what-was-called a “role model”, and it was easy to see your heroes and heroines smoking in photographs, television and while doing their jobs on stage or in movies.

[Picture of James Harold Wilson]‘Lighting up’ bought time before answering a question — this was even more true for pipe smokers such as the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. This extended delay meant that you appeared thoughtful and your replies would be understood to have been carefully considered (whether true or not) — as a result, people tried to appear intellectual simply by smoking a pipe. Sherlock Holmes, Einstein, and Van Gogh are pipe-smoking role models.

[Picture of Einstein Smoking a pipe] [Picture by Vincent Van Gogh]

[Picture of Bing Crosby Smoking a Pipe][Picture of Cary Grant Smoking a pipe] Pipe smoking is a serious business for a certain type of person who knows what they want and how to get it. Pipe smokers do not seem to need or want company; the strong aroma and great amounts of smoke section pipe-smokers off as a certain kind of person.


[Man with no name picture][Picture of Groucho] [Picture of Arnie smoking]Like a pipe, cigars are smelly and manly. They do not have the same fuss as a pipe, pipe cleaner, pipe rack, and so forth. A big fat cigar can be very serious and testosterone-filled or laughably ridiculous. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ had a cheroot constantly in his mouth — except when he was lighting the fuse to some dynamite.

[Picture of James Dean smoking] [Picture of Jimmy Dean smoking]

[Picture of Jimi Hendrix smoking]Perhaps the biggest influences were stars like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Dean — they looked COOL when they smoked. The way Bogart cupped his hands around a cigarette was incredibly influential — as was protecting the lighting-up procedure from the wind and snipers!

[Picture of Bogart cupping a cigarette] [Picture of Cowboy - marlboro man]

You see, back then men did not wear jewellery. The US American idea of male wedding rings had not been thought up, and men certainly did not wear earrings or have piercings. All a man had was a watch, his cigarette lighter or cigarette brand/ packet, and his clothes and hat. A car was a luxury item afforded by only a few.

[Picture of Sean Connery as James Bond - smoking] [Picture of Sammy Davis Junior smoking] [Picture of Frank Sinatra smoking]

It was about clues — how a person was (or wanted to be). It was a social statement to use a Zippo or a Dunhill — or even a match or book of matches. What you smoked — roll-ups, untipped, filter-tipped, cigar, cheroot, panatella, pipe, holder — all made a statement about the smoker. Then there were cool ways to strike a light — a match to the sole of the shoe, along the trouser leg, a stubbly chin, the flick of a thumbnail. There were tricks with Zippos and books of matches.Cigarette smoking was about stuff and gestures: identity and personality. Sure, you had to offer a cigarette to people, and you had to light them up too — so why not offer a special brand from a nice packet, and use a nice lighter or do a trick with a book of matches? Within the group dynamic there were a lot of choices and options.

The “atmosphere” of a nightclub was dependent upon smoke. A smoky atmosphere was cosy and implied relaxation (rather than dancing or other exertions). It implied intimacy and created a common bond as everyone smoked together. A smoky club came to epitomise Jazz and being cool.

[Picture of smoky Jazz club] [The Jazz Singer Iconic image] [Herman Leonard Picture] [Picture of Dean Martin smoking]

This continued with rebellious guitarists who would wedge a cigarette between the strings and the headstock of the electric guitar, or let the butt hang from their lip.

[Picture of Z<p>appa smoking] [Picture of Eric Clapton’s Strat with cigarette burns] [Picture of fag in headstock]

[Picture of books of matches]People scribbled down notes and phone numbers on cigarette packets and match books. Books of matches played a HUGE role in advertising pubs and restaurants — and were usually given away freely. As a result they featured a lot in detective novels — along with the discovery of butts with lipstick on them!

Apart from being respected and developing your self-image, there was the matter of the opposite gender. They had to be impressed. I knew many men who smoked Embassy Regal with a cupped hand until they were out chatting up women, whereupon they would place their Gold plated lighter atop their gold coloured Benson & Hedges packet on the pub table, and they would hold the cigarette completely differently: instead of cupping, the cigarette would be held between between the scissors of the index and second finger. Gestures and behaviours could be consciously changed to good effect.

[Picture of Dietrich smoking ad]

This is because they were aware that women judged men by their choice of smoke, brand, ways and means of lighting up and by the culture of manners surrounding these things — from the contemptuous rejection of blowing smoke in your face, to the dominating posing with a cigarette holder like Audrey Hepburn (or any material girl) — waiting for the subservient male admirer to provide the light.

[Picture of cartoon smoker] [Picture of Audrey Hepburn with cigarette holder] [Picture of sexy smoker] [Picture of Scarlette smoking]

{Picture of Ava Gardner lighting up] Smoking was also an opportunity for women to be sexy and engage men on an extremely intimate level; lighting a cigarette implies closeness and intimacy, it is face-to-face, it involves the lips, eye-contact, hands, and possibly touching.

[Picture of Menthol ad] [Picture of lady lighting a man up]

However, the initial seduction-smoking would soon develop into a cosy, share-and-care married, comfortable type of relationship, filled with lighting each other’s cigarettes. However, it was also possible to be highly sexually charged, the seduction becoming post-coital, or edging sexuality with a hint of danger.

[Iconic Image of Dietrich] [Picture of sexy smoking] [Picture of Cool Smoking Gal]

The strange fact is that a lot of men found (and still do find) the idea of women smoking to be very arousing, and this is naturally exploited in movies even today. Of course the Internet has a lot of smoking adult sites (wonders will never cease).

[Picture of Pulp Fiction cover] [Picture of Angelina Jolie smoking] [Picture of Gal exhaling]

[Picture of Humphrey Bogart smoking]

When Hippies arrived, smoking pot became sociable and involved gestures and stuff and identity. Cannabis is mixed with the tobacco from a cigarette to make a joint. This joint is then passed around the group. It is a faux pas to hold onto the joint for too long — you would be accused of ‘Bogarting the Joint’ — a cultural cross-reference to the fact that Humphrey Bogart used to leave his cigarette hanging from his lip while he talked and went about his business. One should NEVER ‘Bogart’ a joint.

I don’t know, back then, maybe people did not expect to live very long — there was a war every decade or so, so perhaps there was something of a ‘live today’ approach? Maybe people were more used to being in crowds, or more relaxed about things in general.

In fact it was understood that it would be the very last thing you would do; if a man was going to the electric chair, he’d be allowed a last cigarette. A cigarette would be placed to the lips of the man in front of the firing squad. A cowboy shot down by a gunslinger would be given a last few puffs before expiring. A last smoke was compulsory, the last kindness, a good thing to do — especially if you took the cigarette from your own lips and placed it into the mouth of the dying person… that was like a kiss only better.

[Picture of Cartoon strip]

Smoking was punctuation. I suppose that was the biggest thing about smoking and tobacco — it marked the end of things: the end of a meal, the end of a task, the end of a tea break, the post-coital cigarette, the one before you left.

Perhaps I have jogged some memory or informed the youth about smoking and society. Sure it’s in decline now, and it is certainly not acceptable to most people anymore — even I have given up!

Perhaps we live in a healthier, longer-living society. Perhaps we live in a less tolerant and more complex society. People with mobile telephones and jewellery are self-obsessed compared with the more social and sociable person of the past — who offered you a smoke, a light and a drink.

23 Responses to “Why We Smoked”

  1. Gina Says:

    This is fantastic! This has to be the only article ever to tackle the issue of why a generation smoked. I will definately reccommend this as it is very educational and informative about the subject.

  2. Darren Says:

    I agree. This was a real trip down memory lane! I had completely forgotten all this! How TRUE! Thanks.

  3. James Says:

    I like the way you started with Santa and ended with Santa’s end! Genius, sheer genius. Having read all 4 of your articles I demand more! I need more of this sort of thing in my life.

  4. Aaron Wildew Says:

    excellent blog

  5. Pacman Says:

    Love the blog, this one especially. The pictures made me breathless and it all came back (I gave up 15 years ago) just like it was yesterday.

  6. Garry Says:

    This is so good it hurts. Wonderful. MORE MORE

  7. parents_died_from_smoking Says:

    Oh yes, it is so glamorous…until you are choking up your own lungs in a hospice facility later in life. Had to watch this with both of my parents. The cycle ends with me. If any kid today thinking of lighting up could have seen what I had to see, if only for a few minutes, he wouldn’t think it was so “cool”.

  8. sandy Says:

    It is so damned attractive and sexy probably because we were all conditioned to think so by these lovely attractive young and healthy looking people. It is such a shame that the reality is a horrible slow death. If you don’t mind I would like to use this blog to explain the smoking generation to my pupils. They have to understand WHY people smoked at all.

  9. YBEME Says:



  10. enyuy Says:

    Good site!!!

  11. steve Says:

    I wonder how many of the role models pictured here have died of a smoking related disease

  12. declan Says:

    i live by everything in this article
    no art is better than smoking

  13. Tom Baldwin Says:

    Just read the article and I must say that although it’s not politically correct to smoke these days, I wonder whether we have it right. I know about cancer and how people die horrible deaths from smoke related illnesses. Society has changed. People now are selfish and couldn’t care less about their neighbours and family. I’m not that old, but I do remember those times and indeed your piece captures the mood completely. This generation with their ‘attitudes’ about smoking, lack of social graces and hooliganism in the streets. This generation… they are I think missing the whole point of life. To love one another, help your neighbour and enjoy yourself. Enough from me. Great article.

  14. tipster Says:

    Check out the top ten most unbelievable vintage cigarette posters here

  15. wheezy Says:

    The news that the government aims to halve the number of people smoking in England by 2020 prompted listener Mo Hutchinson to write:

    “In the mid-70s I was admitted to hospital for 3 weeks bed-rest. As I was escorted to my bed an anxious-to-please nurse asked if there was anything she could get me. I said I’d like an ashtray if it wasn’t too much trouble.

    Back she duly came with said ashtray and I got through 20 fags a day while lying on the bed – no mean feat. Now I am off to get up close and personal with a group of strangers huddling around a patio heater in the lashing rain and storm force gales – that will probably do for me.”

    Mmm. Things were different back then Mo… but we like the idea of making a programme about your smoking stories.

    Is the ritual of smoking an essential part of your day. Did you meet the love of your life because of cigarettes? Is there one smoke you remember above all the others? contact the BBC…

  16. wheezy Says:

    We know smoking is bad for you. We know there are lots of people who want to stop but can’t. The death toll is huge. Smokers can no longer light up indoors in public places. You won’t see cigarette ads. They could soon be under-the-counter products, sold in packs without logos.

    But listeners have begun sending us their stories of how much they enjoy smoking…of how it has helped make them new friends…of the pleasure it has brought them.

    If you have such a story…please email us at ipm@bbc.co.uk.

  17. Syler Womack Says:

    I think the obsession with “health” is partly a result of people becoming too “smart” to believe in God…as a consequence, they no longer believe in an afterlife, and every moment, every second, which this earthly life can be prolonged is more important than manners, or comfort, or compassion, or simple enjoyment…So very sad.

  18. Naruto Says:

    This is so good it hurts. Wonderful. MORE MORE

  19. […] so bad and it’s going to kill you, but if you could regenerate lung tissue then everyone could always have a cigarette in their hands all the time like in the 1940s. […]

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