Ode to Nicotiana

Für und Wider den Tabak. Aussprüche deutscher Zeitgenossen über den Tabakgenuss.

Written for Deutsche Tabak-Zeitung. Published by Gustav Lewinstein in 1890, by the Wolf Peiser Verlag in Berlin.

The book before us claims to provide arguments for and against the use of tobacco. It was published in 1890 by one Mr Lewinstein, the editor of the Deutsche Tabak-Zeitung (German Tobacco Newspaper), under the pretext of presenting both sides of the long-running debate about the health risks of smoking. The question of whether it can be in the interest of such an editor to give serious arguments against tobacco use is probably of a rhetorical nature. But even if one didn’t knew anything about the author’s background, the format and the content of the book would make you notice immediately what this is really about: an ode to “Nicotiana”, a dangerous but tempting companion that no one really wants to live without. The book’s tenor seems to be, after all, entirely in line with Oscar Wilde, who found that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

 

A Book Like a Cigar Box

The first thing that catches the reader’s eye is the elaborate design of the book. Starting with the cover made of light wood, all details resemble a cigar box. The title is at the centre and set in a circle, making it look like a cubierta, i.e. the circular ornament on the outside of a cigar box that usually bears the brand name of the manufacturer. Then there are the filetes, the lithographically decorated paper strips on the border of the cover. In the case of cigar boxes, these filetes aren’t mere decoration but seal the box. The main seal, however, is on the upper edge of the cover, a tapaclevo. On cigar boxes, these tapaclevos often refer to the manufacturer or the brand name. Therefore, the seal of the Cuban cigar manufacturer Romeo y Julieta depicts the two lovers it is named after.

And our book? Well, first of all, the scantily dressed woman on the rectangular book seal is blatantly advertising the German Tobacco Newspaper, which she wears on her head. The name of the newspaper has been hispanicized (“La gazeta de tabacos”), probably with the purpose of alluding to the South and Central American regions as the origin of tobacco and to add an exotic touch. And last but not least, I believe that it is a depiction of Nicotiana – a humorous portrayal of the tobacco plant as a female muse and seductress. Because that is exactly how she’s described in many parts of the book.

Nicotiana: Muse, Seductress, Excellent Companion

Für und Wider den Tabakgenuss (The Pros and Cons of Tobacco Use) certainly does not aim to meet any scholarly standard. Briefly said, the editor asked acquaintances to send him letters in which they expressed their opinions on tobacco use. Among them are not only doctors but mainly authors and artists. And what does a writer say about smoking? “I can’t write a single line without smoking […]. I mean that nothing comes to mind if I can’t look at the glow or the blue breath of a cigar every now and then.” With this statement, a Berlin author legitimises his nicotine addiction as a necessary prerequisite for his professional work as a poet. In an almost poetical rhyme, he continues and describes the cigar as an “excellent companion”: “Ich bin nicht gern allein. Mit der Cigarre fühle ich mich zu Zweien.“ (freely translated: I don’t like to be just me. My cigar keeps me company.)

He isn’t the only one to feel this way. Although many of the letters admit that smoking is unhealthy, a nasty habit, bad for the stomach and a vice, they all insist that the pleasure outweighs these disadvantages. Nicotiana is described as a muse, a seductress or harsh ruler to whom one gladly surrenders. Mr Sybel from Berlin, for instance, writes: “I praise the mind and character of anyone who is able to resist the temptation of sweet Nicotiana – but what pleasure there is in succumbing to temptation!”

The author August Silberstein goes even further and writes an entire poem in which he elevates smoking – albeit with a touch of irony – to an almost transcendent way of passing the time. In his verses, the cigarette glows as brightly as the sun in the firmament and wisps of cigar smoke spiral cloud-like towards the blue sky making the poet’s chest practically swell with romantic feeling. In contrast, taking snuff is depicted as a menial, dirty activity.

Is It Bad For Your Health?

But what do the letters say about the health risks of tobacco use? Well, to be honest, they don’t really want to know too much about it. The first letter to the editor sums it up: “Smoking tobacco is an awful, nasty habit; knowing this does not keep me from passionately indulging in the pleasure of cigars, especially when writing and during idle hours. Is it bad for your health? I would only consult a doctor about this matter if I was quite sure he believed it was not.” I think that about covers it.

Thus, this book is not a balanced debate about the pros and cons of smoking but well-written advertising for the early tobacco industry. And it is quite blatant advertising. It starts already with the cover: a book that makes such an effort to imitate a valuable collector’s item like a cigar box obviously rather appeals to a passionate cigar smoker than to a sceptic. In this way, the book itself becomes a tribute to the beauty of this hobby. In contrast to this, think of today’s tobacco packaging, which has had to be emblazoned with truly disgusting images of lung carcinomas for some years now.

American advertisement for cigarettes from the time of the Second World War: buying cigarettes as a patriotic service to your country.

The Triumph of the Cigarette in the 20th Century

The triumph of the tobacco industry, already adumbrated in our book, reached its peak in the 20th century. For the first time, new machines made the mass production of cigarettes possible and the emergence of modern advertising boosted the development even further. During both world wars, US companies massively sponsored the soldiers at the front by supplying them with free cigarettes, thus opening up huge markets in America and Europe. Then they realized that it was possible to double the volume of the market if smoking wasn’t exclusively for men but for women too. Thus, they quickly got rid of the social taboo according to which smoking was improper for women and the cigarette was presented as the “torch of freedom” against male oppression. Just as the authors of our book did, smoking has always been portrayed as a symbol of freedom, pleasure and non-conformity – with the independent cowboy in the Marlboro ads, the sexual self-determination of a Brigitte Bardot and the intellectual freedom of a Susan Sontag sitting over her books with a fag in her hand. This may make cigarettes the most successful marketing product of all times, which only now – and only very slowly – loses some of its seemingly timeless appeal.

 

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

This audio guide tells you about the importance of cigarettes as a means of payment during both World Wars in Germany (in German).

The BBC’s video “The Origins of Tobacco – Addicted to Pleasure” describes Christopher Columbus’ first encounter with the tobacco plant.

In the MoneyMuseum’s exhibition “Our Journey into the Unknown” you’ll find out how tobacco and many other new goods came to Europe in the early modern period.