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Reviewed by:
  • The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity
  • James Kirby Martin
The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity. By Jarrett Rudy (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press. xi plus 232. $27.95 paper).

The construction of individual identity lies at the heart of this intriguing, although in places confusing monograph about tobacco consumption in Montreal, Canada, between the 1890s and 1950s. The author's organizing concept is liberalism, not all that clearly defined but having to do with persons who did or did not possess a full range of rights predicated on such behavioral traits as self-control and rationality. Liberalism in late nineteenth-century Montreal, states Rudy, related directly to class, racial, and gender identities "that served as criteria which bestowed on a person the rights and freedoms of a liberal individual" (p. 5). Before World War I, women and poorer ethnic groups remained excluded from the liberal order. Bourgeois men, on the other hand, were full members. For them, smoking represented a rite of passage to manhood, so long as they did not smoke to excess and used their inherent rationally to choose quality tobacco products and select appropriate places to smoke. By comparison, notions of respectability about bourgeois women dictated that they should not smoke, since they allegedly "did not possess the power of self-control," thereby making them "more susceptible to abusing tobacco because of their apparently weaker wills" (pp.5, 25). As for poorer males, they had little choice except to subject themselves to the cheap, low grade le tabac canadien that filled their clay pipes; and poorer native women simply proved their "uncivilized" character whenever they lit up their pipes.

Rudy's text explores these types of social-cultural assumptions and practices, even in relation to various points of conflict, such as when bourgeois women entered public spaces in which men, regardless of class, assumed they had the right to smoke. A precursor to modern controversies over smoking in public places occurred in 1901 when the Montreal Street Railway Company banned smoking during wintertime on some of its cars because the gaseous clouds of smoke were nauseating well-to-do women passengers. Only the introduction of specially designated smoking cars ended the controversy, since authorities believed that working-class men, falling as they allegedly did outside the pale of liberalism, lacked the self-control to avoid smoking around respectable women.

Rudy also investigates the ways in which industrialization, warfare, and modern capitalism facilitated the spectacular rise of the modern cigarette, an inconsequential player among tobacco products before the 1890s. The mass production of cigarettes, in turn, supposedly "undermined" long-held traditions relating to "liberal prescriptions of respectable smoking" (p. 109). World War I was especially important in popularizing this cheaper, quicker method of smoking that all persons, regardless of race, class, or gender, could obtain. Before the war, cigarettes had projected an effeminate image, but widespread consumption by troops facing the horror of combat turned cigarettes into a truly "'manly"' product. The rise of the modern cigarette, Rudy concludes, helped reshape "the hierarchies of taste into a new language of mass consumption" among postwar Montrealites, who found themselves living in a society at once more open and less hierarchical than they had previously known. (pp. 110-111).

In keeping with his emphasis on race, class, and gender, Rudy devotes a chapter [End Page 485] to the matter of women becoming "respectable" smokers. He notes an historiographical split regarding whether advertising made smoking acceptable to women, or whether women, rather than being "hoodwinked by advertisers," started consuming large numbers of cigarettes after World War I "as a symbolic assertion of sexual equality and that advertisers followed their lead" (p. 149). Noting the scholarship of Michael Schudson, among others, Rudy lines up with this latter camp in arguing that bourgeois women employed smoking as a tool in attacking traditional liberal assumptions about their alleged gender-related weaknesses.1 This victory, Rudy also states, had its hollow side, once the health consequences of smoking became clear, apparently during the 1950s.

In regard to the subject of smoking and health, Rudy does not seem to recognize the extent of pre-mid-twentieth century...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 485-486
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-23
Open Access
No
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