Cigarettes in the Boudoir: Omaha’s Female Smokers in 1889

Nathaniel Currier’s 1847 lithograph depicted a reclining woman smoking a cigarette. NSHS 10645-4273

“From London comes the assurance that the duchess of Marlborough has introduced cigarette smoking in the charmed circle of her select friends,” said the Omaha Bee on October 27, 1889. The Bee went on to inform its readers that the “more than half-naughty fad” was becoming popular among society women in Omaha as well.

The male Bee reporter said of this new class of smokers and their feminine smoking accessories: “In the boudoirs of any number of women in Omaha, a tray of cigarettes, holders and matches has its honored place with no effort at concealment. . . . There are little trays of silver, Benares brass, tortoise shell or porcelain; holders of amber, mother of pearl, or silver again, in instances jeweled and adorned with a monogram; match boxes of rarest workmanship, some of them with miniatures of bygone beauties made to smile at this now-a-day custom; tiny candlesticks to hold the tapers, and a thousand other enticing things which go far toward seducing the feminine mind.”

The Bee believed that “[t]he charm for the fair sex in smoking is undoubtedly the conviction that it is at least venturesome!” Well-known actresses, such as Rose Coghlan and Lillie Langtry, who smoked onstage, were thought to be another cause.

The Bee reporter clearly disapproved of a woman with “a paper covered weed in her dainty fingers and her bewitching face seen through the soft gray curling smoke.” His final advice to Omaha women in 1889 was to avoid the use of tobacco as the source of unpleasant odors, “wrinkles and a lack of repose, that unmistakable seal of good breeding.”

Sixteen years later in 1905 there was a legislative effort in Nebraska to curb cigarette smoking. It did not take long for smokers to challenge the new law in court, with mixed results. The act was finally repealed in 1919, presumably because it was considered ineffective.  – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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